Henry Muñoz has lived through the boom-and-bust cycle of small-town mines. He comes from five generations of Arizona miners, spent years underground digging up ore, and has been a front-row witness to the industry’s economic and environmental fallout. 

“What mines do is pollute, contaminate, and destroy,” he says. “And if the mining companies can’t make another quick buck, they’re out of there.” 

It’s what he saw at the San Manuel Copper Mine. It’s what he saw happen to the land, to families in Superior, Arizona.

Update

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Hudbay on May 12, upholding a 2019 ruling that halts Rosemont mining operations on the eastern slopes of the Santa Ritas. The Copper World project is on the western slopes. Read more here.

Once the world’s largest copper mining operation, San Manuel shut down in 1999. Overnight, the mine in his hometown — tucked against desert mountains in Central Arizona  — put thousands of people out of work.

Decades after Muñoz first stepped into a mine, he’s now fighting for the next generation with the Concerned Citizens and Retired Miners Coalition. Muñoz is worried Southern Arizona families will suffer the same struggles his community endured.

Hudbay, a Canadian mining giant, has broken ground in the Santa Rita mountains south of Tucson, and is continuing to muscle through legal challenges and community opposition to begin digging up copper in one of two massive open pit mining projects they’re proposing. This project, Copper World mine site, is located on the western slopes of the mountains.

Tohono O’odham, Pascua Yaqui, and Hopi tribes filed a federal court petition April 19 for a temporary restraining order to halt bulldozing and preliminary work that they say Hudbay started without notifying the tribes.

The Indigenous nations say Hudbay’s ground clearing is causing “severe, immediate, and irreversible harm to tribal cultural resources, waters of the United States, and critical wildlife habitat.” Critics also claim that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has to sign off for various permits, has not conducted a sufficient environmental impact analysis. 

A view of buttes in the Santa Rita mountains that would be leveled by the Copper World mining project. Credit: John Washington for AZ Luminaria

The Santa Rita mountain range, called Ce:wi duag in the Tohono O’odham language, is a frequent daytrip for Southern Arizonans to visit Mount Wrightson and Madera Canyon for hiking, camping and birding in the Coronado National Forest.

The proposed Copper World site is in Pima County, not far from Vail, Corona de Tucson and Sahuarita. It is part of the larger site owned by Hudbay that includes the Rosemont mine. Rosemont would be the third largest copper mine in the United States, and also faces ongoing legal challenges.

The land and waters at risk in the range are sacred to Indigenous people who have buried their ancestors and worshipped in these mountains and foothills for generations. The mountains are home to Hohokam burial grounds and a historic Hohokam village.

Muñoz, along with the miners’ coalition, a host of environmental groups, and Indigenous nations are continuing an enduring fight against modern-day mining in the Santa Ritas. The Tucson City Council is also opposed to the proposed mine, with Tucson Assistant City Attorney Chris Avery, saying the city’s resistance is “total and complete.”

Opponents are up against U.S. government policies, local and federal legal systems and an international corporation as massive as the land it unearths.

Hudbay has fired back in a complex legal move on May 3, claiming that they didn’t actually need government approval or a permit — and officially returning it — to dig and dispel waste into rivers and washes. Company officials argue that the tribes’ and environmental groups’ concerns tied to violations of the permit are moot now.

Stu Williams, Executive Director of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, described Hudbay’s latest strategy as trying to “stall in the courts and continue guns-blazing on the Copper World site.”

U.S. District Judge James Soto asked the parties to submit their responses to motions this month, but it is unclear when he will make a ruling on the temporary restraining order or the tribes’ request for an injunction.

This current tangle in the courts is yet another knot in a decade-long fight over who may dig what, if anything, out of the mountains south of Tucson.

Muñoz says Arizonans need to know that Hudbay will do everything in the corporation’s power to expand its global mining operations to the desert.

“One thing about these mining companies, they promise, promise, promise,” Muñoz says. “But you know what, if you’re working there, you’re going to be looking at the price of copper in the newspaper every day wondering if you’re going to have a job tomorrow.”

Looking out at the Imerys limestone quarry near where the Copper World mine would be dug. Credit: John Washington for AZ Luminaria

Mining Time

Compared to other construction projects, the financing, permitting, and the digging of a mine moves in geologic time.

Any potential copper to come from the Santa Rita Mountains may still be decades away, if it ever glints at all. But that doesn’t mean the prospects are any less heated.

The Army Corps’ authority to allow or prohibit construction that would affect U.S. waterways, which include ephemeral streams or washes, is being decided in a Supreme Court case this term.

The high court’s decision could affect not only the Army Corps’ authority for the Rosemont and Copper World mines, but also for a proposed 28,000-home development near Benson, the Villages at Vigneto. Legal experts expect the Supreme Court to side with developers, which would limit federal protection of some waterways, potentially offering more leeway to Hudbay.

The future of the Santa Rita’s eastern slopes, where Hudbay hopes to dig the mile-wide Rosemont mine pit — opposite the western mountain side targeted for the Copper World site — is also at stake.

In 2019, a U.S. District Court for Arizona overruled the U.S. Forest Service’s approval for Hudbay to dig the Rosemont mine. Hudbay appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has yet to rule on the case

The standoff recently went from the slow burn of back-and-forth legal filings to Hudbay actually starting to blade and clear ground. 

The mere announcement, in early April, that the heavy machinery would start rumbling provoked swift condemnation. 

The Tohono O’odham Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and Hopi Tribe put Hudbay on notice: Indigenous people are uniting in Arizona, calling for work to cease until Native nations have their day in court.

“A temporary restraining order is essential to halt the bulldozers and prevent any further irreparable harm to cultural and environmental resources.” 

The suit describes the area as a “location of sacred sites, ancestral villages and burials, and a source of plant, animal, and mineral resources critical to maintaining the Tohono O’odham Nation’s culture.” They warn that further digging will “clear a historic Hohokam habitation site to make way for a waste rock facility, forever wiping this cultural site off the land. There is no way to reverse the loss of these critical desert streams.”

A consortium of environmental groups  have issued their own letter expressing intent to sue, calling Hudbay’s actions “appalling” and claiming the company “doesn’t have the right to pollute waters our communities and wildlife need to survive.”

The Arizona environmental organizations working to stop the mine include the Center for Biological Diversity, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, and the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter.

The letter from the Tohono O’odham, Pascua Yaqui, and Hopi nations specified that Hudbay’s actions violated the Clean Water Act.

They say the Canada-based mining corporation has put in permanent peril not only recreational activity in the Santa Rita mountains, but has violated a federal regulation requiring the company to obtain a permit before they alter or contaminate waterways. 

Aerial photos of Copper World Project site. Credit: Courtesy of Russ McSpadden / Center for Biological Diversity

Hudbay’s lawyers and public relations team have also fought back in the legal system and court of public opinion.

Responding to questions from Arizona Luminaria, the corporation said it “decided to relinquish our 404 permit for Rosemont.”

In other words, the company argues they’re operating on land they own and is no longer seeking permission to alter and affect U.S. waterways in order “to relieve ourselves and the government of the burden of defending a permit that we do not need in ongoing lawsuits.” 

Hudbay’s actions, the tribal nations’ letter says, threaten to poison and deplete groundwater and further desecrate critical habitat that is home to a number of endangered animals and plant species.

Following that letter was the request for a temporary restraining order to prevent Hudbay from continuing construction, which the tribes contend will permanently alter ancestral sites in violation of the National Historic Preservation Act.

Hudbay responded to Arizona Luminaria questions about the expansive mining project, explaining how they plan to mitigate negative environmental impacts. 

“American consumers aspire to responsible sourcing for products ranging from diamonds, to sneakers and coffee. It should be no different for copper and the products made from copper that are essential for almost every aspect of our modern, connected lifestyle.” 

The company said it would  “work with the agencies, who are responsible for regulating mining activities to ensure that environmental standards are met.” That statement comes as Hudbay claims it doesn’t need a permit under the federal Clean Water Act, a program “to regulate the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States, including wetlands.”

In mid-April, as Hudbay began preliminary work on the proposed Copper World project, the Santa Rita foothills were bathed in a warm spring sunshine. 

Among the white limestone-dusted roads and the sloping ocotillo forests, about a dozen construction vehicles were at work bulldozing through a dense network of washes and desert scrub. Between the peaks of Peach Knob, Gunsight Pass, Weigles Butte, and the Huérfano monadnock — which is home to Hohokam relics and is spiritually important to the Tohono O’odham people — earthmovers were clawing at the ground, leaving scars of brown amidst the pale and green of the desert.

“It is in this sacred place,” the tribes’ petition reads, “that Rosemont proposed to develop a mile-wide by half mile deep open pit copper mine on the east side of the mountain.”

Hudbay and its subsidiaries have long tentacles, and have been entangled in controversies throughout the world with Indigenous and non-Indigenous nations. In Guatemala, an employee at one of Hudbay’s former subsidiaries pleaded guilty to killing Adolfo Ich, an Indigenous teacher and community leader opposed to mining; the company has also been accused in Guatemala of forcibly evicting Indigenous people. 

In Southern Arizona, a coalition of tribal nations, Tucson City Council members, environmental groups, and people like Muñoz are not giving up.

sec.gov

The Lurching Search for Copper in Southern Arizona

Copper World is among Hudbay’s mining claims being proposed in the Santa Ritas (another is the Rosemont mine), but it would all effectively be a single mega-site composed of at least four separate open pits.

In a statement to Arizona Luminaria, Hudbay said that “Copper World has the potential to be a standalone project, or additive to the Rosemont project.”

Similar prospects in the Santa Ritas, though not always of this scale, have been explored and exploited since at least the 19th century.

The current claims for the greater project, which includes both Copper World and Rosemont, began in the 1980s, changing hands between a series of different corporations, finally settling under control of Hudbay in about 2014.

One of the key differences — and why different permits would be required to continue the work — between Copper World and Rosemont comes down to ownership: Hudbay owns the land they want to dig through on the western slopes of the Santa Ritas, whereas the U.S. Forest Service owns the land on the eastern slopes where the Rosemont pits would be unearthed.

In all, according to Hudbay’s calculations, more than 1,200 acres would be disturbed by the mining, which would include the decapitation of a whole string of mountain peaks, permanently altering the Santa Rita skyline.

In pulling up the copper, hundreds of millions of tons of waste rock would be dug out of the earth and dumped in the vicinity in massive tailing piles. About 154 ephemeral streams would be impacted — buried, diverted, or sucked dry — by the project, which sits directly in critical jaguar habitat, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Jaguars are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Carolyn Shafer described the potential irreversible effects of Copper World and Rosemont not only on the Santa Cruz watershed, but also further south on the Sonoita Creek watershed. Shafer is Board Chair of the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance.

The Patagonia area has also dealt with mining for about a hundred years, with the last working area mine closing in the 1960s. Residents, both human and non, are still dealing with the remaining toxins. 

“The first tenet of responsible mining should be that there are some places you cannot mine,” Shafer said, alternately stern and protective as she discussed potential environmental harms.

Shafer sees the Santa Ritas, with their diverse and threatened ecologies, as perfect examples of places on earth that should not be mined.

The clash between mining corporations and mining critics is complex, and not specific to the Santa Ritas.

Further north, the area around Oak Flat in the high desert of Pinal County has been a locus of controversy between a coalition of Western Apache people and environmental advocates fighting Resolution Copper, another mining giant that wants to dig for metal. Similar to the area around the proposed Copper World mine, Oak Flat and its environs are both sacred and a critically important wildlife habitat.

As one young Apache woman, Nizhoni, said of the prospect of the Oak Flat mine: “It’s gonna leave a hole in the Earth and a hole in all our hearts.”

“Don’t mess with your life blood, which is water”

Henry Muñoz

Copper’s Promises — and Failures

Modern industry is increasingly copper-dependent. Pounds and pounds of it go in electric vehicles and its wires line pretty much every gadget you buy. And yet mining projects forever alter — some researchers might say, irreversibly destroy — the surrounding environment. 

They’re also notoriously unpredictable, based on speculation and subject to the market’s whims.

Copper World, putting in peril the Santa Ritas and two watersheds, is projected to be a 20-year project. How much benefit Arizonans will reap is far from certain. 

Despite such mega-projects often requiring billions of dollars in financing, little of the money poured in may actually go to local economies. 

“Circle K might see a little more income,” Roger Featherstone, Director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, said. “Workers stopping for coffee on the way in and beer on the way out.” 

Academic studies bear out Featherstone’s realism. Mining economist Tom Power, who studied the Rosemont mine’s potential economic impacts, found Hudbay’s own projection focused exclusively on the purported economic benefits. Hudbay’s analysis, according to Power, made virtually no mention of any costs or adverse impacts to either the public or private sector. 

“Across the United States, mining communities are noted for high levels of unemployment, slow rates of growth of income and employment, high poverty rates, and stagnant or declining populations,” Power writes.

In a statement, Hudbay said that “a detailed economic analysis has not yet been completed for Copper World,” but the project, they estimated, would create between 500-1,000 direct jobs and up to 3,000 indirect jobs. Opponents have questioned the job estimates and how many will provide full-time high-salary employment.

Both Indigenous nations and environmental groups keep returning to the impact on the land, which is both spiritually sacred and a critical habitat. For Muñoz, who followed in his Arizona mining family’s footsteps, there is one vital takeaway.

“My message: Don’t mess with your life blood, which is water,” he says.

“Speaking as a grandmother, we have got to start thinking dramatically differently about the trajectory of an extractive industry that is destroying the planet,” Shafer, the Patagonia community advocate, said. 

Will greater Tucson’s copper stay in the ground, or will some of Santa Rita’s peaks be turned to deep pits? Despite the bulldozers currently coughing up smoke, the answer may not come for years.

After the April hearing at the Tucson federal courthouse, lawyers from each side gathered at the back of the courtroom to look at a map. The lawyers for the mine held briefcases; the lawyers for the activists carried backpacks.

Nothing was resolved in court that day, but the stakes were apparent.

Just outside the courtroom, tribal officials walked past windows that gave view to both the Tucson Mountains and the Santa Rita Mountains, where flattened hills and other scars remain from long-shuttered mining operations.

John Washington

John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...