Commotion, confusion, complicated engineering charts, public outcry, and a call for back-up deputies dominated an Open House event hosted by Supervisor Bruce Bracker and County Manager Jesus Valdez on September 28 at Cady Hall in Patagonia.
More than 100 people attended the event which was structured around visiting four informational stations. County consultants and staff were on hand to discuss the phases of permitting for the Cross Creek Connector (CCC), a controversial 1.3-mile road connecting State Route 82 with Harshaw Road. The road is currently being built by South32 to support traffic to and from its Hermosa Project, mainly during the mine’s construction period.
The public meeting, scheduled from 5 to 7p.m., began well ahead of schedule as people arrived nearly 30 minutes early and the crowd continued to grow through the evening. The poor acoustics and lack of space in Cady Hall made it next to impossible to speak with the county experts and hear their responses. The timing of the meeting, which coincided with the regularly scheduled Town Council meeting, prevented Patagonia town officials from attending.
Supervisor Bruce Bracker, speaking with constituents outside the building, explained why he had set up this meeting. “We are here to engage with the community,” he said. “With the CCC there is going to be an item that comes up to the board. I think it’s important for us to come out and talk to people about what the item is, and why the board has to vote on it.” Bracker was referring to South 32’s plans for an interchange connecting the CCC and Harshaw Rd. There is a proposal to reduce the speed limit there to 25 mph for safety reasons, which requires the Board of Supervisors’ approval. An executive session was scheduled to review this at the Oct. 3 BOS meeting.
As Bracker was talking outside Cady Hall, he was interrupted by raised voices coming from inside the building. People were pulling out folding chairs from a corner of the room and setting them up in the middle of the room to create audience seating while insisting on changing the format of the open house to facilitate a group question-and-answer process. Representatives from the County balked at the suggestion, telling people to return the chairs or they would leave. Then, several stacked chairs came crashing to the floor sending a bomb-like noise reverberating off the walls.
The tension in the room was palpable as attendees threatened to walk out and continued to demand loudly that the facilitators cave to their demands. About that time, a sheriff’s deputy moved to the front of the room where much of the confrontation was happening. Back-up deputies appeared and positioned themselves outside the front door.
“I thought Bracker was combative, which surprised me,” Patagonia resident Ron Pulliam said. “A number of us felt that the format was not conducive to asking questions and getting answers. We were getting different answers from different people. For instance, we got two different answers about the number of vehicles at the meeting, and both differed from what we had heard before. We asked if we could change the format. We wanted one person to talk at a time and explain the charts.” At first, the county officials said ‘no’, but ultimately they agreed to the audience’s request.
As the crowd quieted down, County Manager Jesus Valdez began to describe the three phases of construction for the CCC and the requisite permitting. Phase 1, which has been fully permitted, entails construction of the CCC from below the intersection with Harshaw Road down to near the intersection of State Route 82.
Phase 2, the intersection of the CCC with Harshaw Road, requires a right of way use permit and floodplain use permit. Additional work is planned to elevate the road at the intersection to improve line of sight. Bracker is not totally happy with South32’s proposal. “The mine’s engineers have designed the interchange, and they are asking for a speed limit change,” he said after the meeting. “I think there are better solutions to the present design and everybody’s got to work a bit harder.”
Phase 3 is the intersection of the CCC with State Route 82, which requires an ADOT Encroachment Permit. South32 submitted their Encroachment Permit application to ADOT in March 2023 and soon after filed their Traffic Impact Study. Melanie Lawson, Community Spokesperson for the mine, said that South32 is awaiting feedback from ADOT, expected in the near future. The County only has jurisdiction over that part of the interchange that crosses Sonoita Creek.
“This last phase requires ADOT approval,” Patagonia Vice Mayor Michael Stabile wrote to the PRT after the meeting. “Everyone should send letters to the governor, state representatives, etc. and especially to ADOT. A comprehensive traffic study, much more involved than the previous one, is needed. That entry point construction at CCC and SR82 will take years and disrupt the lives of everyone in town.”
Part of the discussion at the meeting centered on the public’s use of the CCC road. Valdez explained that it is an “unrestricted” easement, meaning anyone with a registered vehicle can use the road. Concerns were raised about weekend traffic and use of the road by visitors, ATVs, and motorcycles adding to traffic numbers and noise. A question was raised about the impact on traffic if the road was available to other mining operations to use, such as Canadian mining company Barksdale who is currently permitted to do exploratory work surrounding the South32 private land.
Bracker responded, “In the very beginning of this project, we were trying to make this a closed road. We got a lot of push back from people, so that’s how we accepted the land. We could have accepted the land with a closed road. Now we are in the process of trying to work with our attorneys for a way we can keep it closed.” Several residents from the Red Rock community said they were never asked about the road being open or closed and many chimed in with objections stating, “That’s a lie.”
County Manager Valdez explained that the CCC was not a road owned by the county but rather an easement granted to South32. South 32 plans to abandon the CCC road as soon as it builds an alternate route south of Patagonia, subject to permitting from the Forest Service.
According to a handout given out at the meeting, traffic numbers utilizing the CCC are now projected during the construction period to be 227 total trips (113 entering and 114 exiting) with 62 trips per day of heavy vehicles and 26 trips per day as buses. Once the mine becomes operational, the Traffic Impact Analysis projected 330 total trips per day (165 entering and 165 exiting) with 208 trips per day as heavy vehicles and 32 trips per day as buses.
A question was raised in the meeting about the County’s plan for mitigation in the event of an accident causing a toxic spill. The county stated that South32 will have to come up with an emergency response plan. This was followed by a question on whether the emergency response plan will address the limitations of existing health care infrastructures, adding there are only 20 acute beds in the county, and no ICU beds. The county responded that the plan is more of an engineering plan in the event of a rollover. At this point, comments and questions became a bit less organized, prompting Supervisor Bracker to say, “You have got to let me talk. Raise your hand and I will answer your question to the best of our ability, otherwise, we leave. It’s very simple.”
Another concern was raised about the potential for South32 vehicles to turn left off the CCC and travel through Patagonia to head towards Nogales. Bracker responded that once you are on a public highway, you can turn any way you want. South32’s Melanie Lawson said, “The company’s plan is to not turn left and go through town. We have plans to avoid the town and we made that commitment for years. We plan to turn right, and in response to public feedback, to also avoid SR 83. That was a concern that we heard from residents for years. So our plan is to look at SR 90 which is a two-lane divided highway and used by other heavy trucking traffic, go up to I-10, and then if it means coming back down toward Nogales, we can do that. It’s a long way around, but that’s what the company is prepared to do to honor public feedback and honor our commitment not to go through town.”
There was also discussion regarding the Patagonia Railroad Track Trail and concerns about safety as the CCC will cross the trail near the ingress/egress of SR 82, as hikers, bikers and horse riders use that trail. Zay Hartigan from the Mountain Empire Trail Association said, “I am assured we will have a seat at the table when it comes to the point of nailing that down…There is no reason we can’t keep that trail. It would need to be relocated further up from the highway, but there is no safety issue that can’t be overcome.”
Reflecting on the evening’s events, Jean Miller, a businesswoman and resident of Patagonia said, “It seems to me that many of the questions and issues raised by the people attending the meeting have already been decided. I believe that the community needs to stay focused on decisions yet to be made that we have some control over.”
Pulliam expressed frustration after the meeting. “A lot of people wanted to know how much influence the county has over the plans for the road. It was ambiguous. Bracker said it was basically up to the state and federal officials. I got the impression they didn’t want us to ask questions about whether the county had any authority on what happens from here out.”
“We still are getting very little information from S32,” he continued. “Apparently they have made a lot of decisions but not only does the public not know the details, county officials say they don’t know either.”