Vice Mayor Michael Stabile, Town Manager Ron Robinson, and Mayor Andrea Wood listen to a speaker during the May 24 Town Council meeting. Photo by Marion Vendituoli

May was a busy month for South32 (S32) and its Hermosa Project. The company released a traffic impact study, broke ground on its first exploration shaft, and Hermosa was selected for expedited permitting by the Biden Administration. 

S32 spokespeople recently made the rounds of local governmental meetings to update officials and concerned citizens and to answer questions. On May 24, S32 Communities Manager Melanie Lawson presented a slide show to the Patagonia Town Council that gave a brief overview of the company’s plans. 

Vice Mayor Michael Stabile, who was a founder of Patagonia Area Resource Alliance (PARA) but is no longer a member of the advocacy organization, raised deep concerns over the traffic impact study’s findings. “We really need a better plan,” said Stabile to Lawson. “The place will never be the same.” (See “Town Council Notes” for full coverage of the May 24 meeting.)

During construction of the mine, the traffic impact study predicts 62 trips per day for heavy trucks that would go north through Sonoita to Tucson, 26 bus trips through the town of Patagonia daily, and 139 passenger vehicles transporting employees, 30% traveling on Harshaw Road through town and 70% using the Cross Creek Connector north of Patagonia. 

Once the mine begins operations, two years after construction begins, the traffic will increase. A total of 208 heavy vehicle trips per day, 90 passenger vehicle trips per day and 32 bus trips per day will utilize the Cross Creek Connector (CCC) route between SR82 and Harshaw Road. The traffic study states that the CCC will be utilized to accommodate all traffic expected through 2034. Much of this traffic will be traveling through Sonoita to and from Tucson. The company has not indicated whether it will be using SR83 or SR90 to access Tucson. The mine continues to study a future route south of Patagonia that would enter SR32 near Lake Patagonia and route much of their traffic south though Nogales.

In an interview last week with the PRT, Vice Mayor Stabile talked about his reaction to the impact study. “South32 is a better company than the previous owners, so I was shocked when I saw the traffic numbers,” he said. “It would just create an atmosphere around here like a big industrial town. The thing we would ask for is a way to minimize the impact of the traffic. I would like to see all the stakeholders—the state, the county, and the town of Patagonia—get together and come up with a better plan. People came here for a certain way of life and that’s going to be destroyed. Patagonia in 10 or 15  years won’t be recognizable anymore.” Stabile also pointed out the potentially crippling damage to the ecotourism and tourist industries in both Patagonia and the wineries in the Sonoita area. 

Stabile is also concerned about the dewatering that the mine is undertaking. “They have to drop the water table 1,000 feet to keep the shafts dry,” he said. “They plan to start discharging in July. It will be between 3,000 and 4,500 gallons per minute, 1.5 billion gallons in the first year. When you discharge all that water into the watershed, I believe the system will become saturated and it won’t take a massive rain event to flood the town.” 

On May 5, the Hermosa Project was added to the federal government’s FAST-41 (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) program, which is intended to accelerate the permitting process by 50%. Expediting the Hermosa project stems from the Administration’s focus on accelerating the development of domestic sources of minerals deemed critical for national security and green energy. 

Meanwhile, the residents of eastern Santa Cruz County will be paying a heavy price if South32 does not address the potential impacts of the massive discharge of water and the exponential increase in traffic, warned Patagonia Vice Mayor Stabile. 

“They’re going to flood us with water and they’re going to flood us with trucks,” he said. “And Patagonia and the Sonoita and Elgin wineries are the sacrificial lambs here for this project.”