An aerial view of the roads and construction at the Copper World complex.  Photo by Stu Williams 

In 2021, Hudbay revised its mining strategy for the north end of the Santa Rita Mountains by replacing the single-pit Rosemont Mine with the multi-pit Copper World project after rejection of their plan to dump tailings on Forest Service land on the east side of the mountains. 

The current mining plan is to develop three new open pits to access a string of seven ore bodies. These ore bodies are expected to yield about one third the amount of copper estimated for the original mile-wide Rosemont Pit, now called the East Pit. 

The company’s reconfigured plans are outlined in the July 14, 2022 Preliminary Economic Assessment (PEA), encompassing land use, methods of mining, processing, infrastructure buildings, production estimates, profits and rates of return on investment. 

The land configuration of the Copper World Complex is complex. From the original Rosemont area on the east side, the new configuration expands over the ridge, down through foothills and over the historical Helvetia townsite. It embraces roughly 25 historical mines. If fully mined, Copper World would reshape over a mile of the Santa Ritas’ ridgeline from 20 to 350 feet lower, eliminating Gunsight Pass. 

Copper World’s PEA presents two Phases, first to 16 years and then to 44 years of mine life. In phase one, all four pits would be mined, using no State or Federal lands. Instead, phase one would use Hudbay’s 2,000 acres of private, patented parcels in combination with private properties recently acquired, 4,500 acres in all. Waste rock and tailings would be mostly stacked on the project’s west side, three miles long and up to 330 ft high, visible from Green Valley, Sahuarita and the I-19 corridor. In phase two, Hudbay assumes it will obtain use of certain federal and state Lands, mostly in its 12,000 acres of about 850 unpatented claims in the Coronado National Forest lying between Box Canyon and Mt. Fagan. 

The Project is bordered on the west by the Santa Rita Experimental Range and Wildlife Area, a 52,000-acre ecological and rangeland research property administered by the College of Agriculture of the University of Arizona. The Range includes the Helvetia Cemetery and a Hohokam site west of Helvetia. 

This year, the primary sitework has been a lattice of access roads and about 160 drill pads on both sides of the mountains, with three to six drill rigs working 24/7. Service roads are being extensively developed on the west side, some constructed with fill that blocks washes – leading this spring to unsuccessful legal requests for injunctions to stop the work. 

Hudbay’s response was to abruptly withdraw their AZ State Section 404 water permits. The PEA states that they will retain and deal with all stormwaters, process water and tailings runoff onsite. 

South Santa Rita Road is planned for both main access and a utility corridor for electricity and water. The electricity would be from the regional grid, and the water from the company’s well field and pumping stations on 180 acres they own nearer to Sahuarita. They claim approval for drawing 6,000 acre-feet per year, roughly 2 billion gallons. 

To bring Copper World into production, the ore processing plant would be a multi-building set of material-handling conveyors, pipelines and buildings for crushing, grinding, flotation, circulation of materials to and from heap leaching, evaporation ponds, concentrate loading for shipment, chemical handling and disposal, and shipping via truck. It would be centrally positioned on the west side and its site plan is diagrammed in the PEA. 

The ore refinement process would be chemical-intensive, including a sulfuric acid plant producing over 1,000 tons a day for copper extraction. Copper and molybdenum will the mine’s main products. Whatever gold and silver is recovered in processing would be alloyed into “doré bars,” and shipped to smelters. 

Given Hudbay’s track record to date, how far and fast the Copper World Complex develops is likely to involve continuing the string of court battles begun in 2007. A central argument will be over the designation of Waters of the US, and thus the applicability of the Clean Water Act. In phase two, when permitting requirements require an Environmental Impact Statement, other parts of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) will be activated. 

According to Austin Nuñez, Chair of the San Xavier District of the O’odham Nation, it is clear that the indigenous position has not changed towards the mine. In a 2018 movie called “Ours is the Land,” Nuñez summarized the indigenous perspective toward the affected land by saying “It’s important to have places where people can go to be rejuvenated, to pray and again to gather materials and medicines that are needed for our livelihood. I don’t really agree that short term gain for employment and income for a company that’s going to come here and leave again, is worth the long-term effects.” 

Other involved resistance groups, such as Sky Island Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity Sierra Club, and Tucson Audubon, are likely to continue resisting as well.