On Partisan Pit Bulls, Poodles and Trusty Watchdogs

TUCSON, Arizona – A local headline last week meant little to winter visitors here to see blazing wildflower color: “Corps Gives Rosemont Mine Final Permit for Construction.” Against a national backdrop, it was a calamitous sign of the times.

America’s watchdog reporters bark louder than ever when public trust is betrayed. Yet unless citizens react, ignoring partisan poodles and pit bulls who mislead them, newshounds might as well be coyotes howling futilely at the moon.

We all know the big picture. Too many people tune out “the media,” confused and overwhelmed. Donald Trump creates an alternate reality by default, burrowing into a White House from which he will be exceedingly hard to evict.

But a close look at the projected Rosemont copper mine shows how we are losing forever natural wealth and cultural heritage as a polarized nation fixates in closed loops on moronic Twitter babble and extraneous political circus. 

Over the past decade, federal and county agencies did what government regulators do: Specialists weighed facts and made decisions. They denied permits over water supply, air quality, impact on wildlife and wetlands, among others.

Trump’s approach is closer to Louis XIV’s: L’Etat, c’est moi. His minions had denials changed to approvals despite years of reporting in Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star, at the national level, and in an investigative website – Rosemont Mine Truth – that provides data and documents for anyone who troubles to notice.

The “Corps” in that Star headline is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has repeatedly refused a Clean Water Act permit. But the decision was moved up the chain of command until it was approved.

As a result, Hudbay Minerals of Toronto is to dig a vast open-pit mine. Environmental scientists say the $1.9 billion project would cripple Tucson’s water supply and destroy priceless splendor on national forest land sacred to Indians.

An 1872 federal law exempts hard-rock mines from royalties. Arizona statutes require only token taxes. Copper concentrate would go to Asia for smelting, with profits banked in Canada. Americans would be left with the mess.

Hudbay might later expand onto adjacent land it now controls. Even if it closes Rosemont after 19 years as planned, the mile-wide pit would keep filling as water evaporates in the Arizona sun. That would drain fragile wetlands. And a mountain of waste rock and slag would block a breathtaking vista toward Mexico.

After Pima County commissioned an independent study, administrator Chuck Huckelberry wrote the supervisors in 2011 that if the mine displaced “only one percent of travel and tourism-related spending in the region, the economic loss would be greater than the entire annual payroll of the mine.” The study calculated that Rosemont would amount to 0.3 percent of the county’s earnings.

(Hudbay executives declined to be interviewed, but in published statements they dispute critics’ conclusions.)

When I was writing a Harper’s magazine piece that ran last September, Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biodiversity took me down scenic Highway 82 south of town to see what was at risk. His worries include El Jefe, perhaps the last jaguar left north of Mexico. Rosemont property takes in his home habitat.

“This goes way beyond one beautiful valley and one mountain range adjacent to a city of one million people,” he said. “This is a profound conflict over what is happening to the American West. At what point do we stop colonizing rural areas and landscapes, raping natural resources to fuel corporate profit? There are a hundred reasons why the Santa Ritas are important, and copper is only one of them.”

That quote didn’t make it into Harper’s, which cut 5,000 words of copy to make room for Samuel James’ stunning photos of atrocious scars that 140 years of copper mining have left in beautiful parts of the Grand Canyon state.

Nor did quotes from Raul Grijalva, the Democrat whose congressional district includes Rosemont.  “This administration has turned all past practices on their head,” he told me. Natural resources are now “purely a commodity, and not for anything else,” he said, adding that regulatory agencies “are under tremendous pressure to go along.”

In Arizona, Grijalva said, mining companies’ political contributions and grants to universities influence decisions. “They are not honest arbiters,” he told me, charging Republican Governor Doug Ducey and the legislature with circumventing regulatory processes and facilitating the industry. (Hunter Moore, Ducey’s chief policy adviser, told me that Arizona adheres to state and federal law, with no bias toward any special interest.)

Now in the majority, Grijalva chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. But Congress is now out of the loop. Pending lawsuits by Indian tribes and environmentalists can stop the mine, but without an immediate restraining order, the bulldozers could soon begin tearing up the Santa Ritas.

The Environmental Protection Agency could still veto the permit. Its fifth critical report, issued late in 2017, excoriated Rosemont’s latest mitigation plan for not offsetting the water it would use. Yet if administrator Andrew Wheeler overrules his field scientists, that leaves only the increasingly Republican courts.

I asked a key source about the lawsuits, and the reply was bleak. “We've got strong arguments, a great paper trail showing that the agency decisions were weak and unfounded, seems like we got a decent judge, got the best attorneys, etc.” But, the source added, in Trump’s America “logic and reason are scarce, and the bad guys always find a way to win.”

We ignore the bigger picture at our peril. Steven Livitsky, a Harvard savant who just published “How Democracies Die,” sent chills down spines at the Tucson Festival of Books. Don’t be surprised, he said, if Donald Trump Jr. runs in 2024.

Americans are already losing constitutional guarantees, impartial courts, global security and the ability to defend human values across the world. China is muscling us aside, from ocean-floor exploitation to the dark side of the moon.

Rosemont is only one example of what is at risk from a juggernaut in plain sight across America that is looting vital resources, bulldozing irreplaceable splendor and trampling on ancient native-American sacred places.

Millions of acres have already been carved from national parks and wilderness put in perpetual trust by past Republican presidents. Future generations’ heritage is squandered for immediate profit.

New technologies make copper increasingly valuable. But plenty is available in Latin America, Africa and Asia, where countries need income. As a strategic material, mine opponents argue, it is best safeguarded in reserve.

In much of the world, people can only watch impotently as national treasures and cultural heritage vanish. Authoritarians don’t consult. Americans only have to listen when watchdogs bark – and take action while they still can.


A version of this piece appeared in the Arizona Daily Star.