The properties in pink are land acquisitions by South32 that provide a route for the Hermosa Project between Harshaw Rd and SR 82. Map courtesy Robert Gay

Representatives from South32 gave a powerpoint presentation to residents of the Red Rock area on August 4 showing a proposed route that they are calling the Cross Creek Connector. This road would link Harshaw Road, just outside the Patagonia Town limits, to Route 82 at Cross Creek Road north of town. Despite South32 avoiding a route through the town limits of Patagonia there is opposition to this project from many residents in the eastern part of the county.

South32 has purchased 15 parcels of contiguous land on which to build the new road, for a total of 366 acres, according to a map constructed by Robert Gay. The company proposes to build three bridges along the connector, across Sonoita Creek, Harshaw Creek and at Red Rock Canyon. Ground clearing would not begin until mid-2021, according to South32.

Ore trucks would proceed north on Hwy 82 to Sonoita, then north on Hwy 83 to the Port of Tucson. South32 expects that the ore would then be sent by rail to the port of Guymas in Mexico or to the ports on the West coast or Gulf coast for shipping.

“The Cross Creek Connector option honors the community’s preference to keep the route outside the town of Patagonia limits, avoids school traffic and pedestrian risks in Patagonia,” wrote Melanie Lawson, communities manager for South32. “We have undertaken extensive studies on the different options available and impacts to communities and neighbors along all of the potential routes was a key consideration.”

There is considerable opposition to this route, however. Ron Pulliam, of Borderlands Restoration and Wildlife Corridors, expressed “very substantial concerns.”

“This proposal will put a major industrial road in the center of an area with high biological diversity, including up to 12 threatened and endangered species,” he said.

An important wildlife corridor stretches from the Patagonia Mountains to the Santa Ritas. Pulliam, who founded Wildlife Corridors, LLC, which has preserved 1,300 acres as open space on the west side of Hwy 82, pointed out that the road would be going through the wildlife corridor.

“This will substantially degrade the ability of the corridor to function,” he said. In addition, there have been “very significant archeological finds in the area. There is the danger of potentially destroying the cultural heritage of the area.”

When asked if there were any legal recourse available to protect against what he perceives to be the environmental threats of the project, he responded, “If they would actually enforce the laws on the books, then the burden of proof would be on the mine to prove that they were not having a negative impact.”

Pulliam feels that the upcoming presidential election will determine whether the government would consider interceding in this case.

Homeowners in the Red Rock area are distressed about the road, as well. Linda Shore’s home is 1/10 mile from the proposed road site. “It really impacts us. It’s a huge concern,” she said, citing the noise of construction and the traffic by ore trucks and mine workers. “There’s no doubt that our property is devalued. People have pulled out of sales here. We would never have bought this house if the Cross Creek Connector were here.”

Many Sonoita and Elgin residents are alarmed at the increased traffic between Sonoita and Tucson, fearing that it will have a substantial negative impact on the area’s tourist businesses, already staggering from the pandemic, as well as concerns about safety and difficulty of travel for residents sharing the road with ore trucks.

“We cannot allow one industry, like the mining industry, to negatively impact our existing tourism industry, the wineries, cycling, birding, riding, hiking, and all the support industries like the restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and shops,” said Elgin vineyard owner Kat Crockett.

“I can’t even imagine what it will be like going up Hwy 83,” Shore said. She, and others, feel that ADOT will have to install a traffic light at the intersection of Hwys 82 and 83 in Sonoita. “How could they not?” she asked.

South32, in response to questions posed by the PRT, responded that they cannot predict how much construction and operational traffic will be traveling through Sonoita, nor how many ore trucks will be travelling between the mine and the railhead in Tucson.

“Future study work beyond the pre-feasibility study will inform the potential size of the construction and operation workforce,” according to Jenny Fiore, communications director for the Hermosa Project. “South32 is developing a traffic management plan and is committed to including controls to substantially minimize if not completely eliminate traffic safety risks like potential vehicle/pedestrian interactions,” she wrote. The company projects that “truck traffic will be less than 10 percent of the current traffic volumes seen on SR-82 as reported in a 2018 Arizona Department of Transportation traffic study,” which, according to Fiore, is between 1,800 and 2,800 vehicles per day. A conservative estimate of truck traffic, then, would be 200 trucks per day between the town and Tucson. If 200 trucks ran 24 hours/day, that would come to one truck every 7.5 minutes. South32 spokesperson Fiore stated that the trucks would not be running 24 hours/day. “The company is mindful of commuter hours and will look to avoid peak hours,” she wrote. In that scenario, the number of trucks per hour would be higher during certain times.

According to Santa Cruz County Public Works Director Jesus Valdez, the county does not have the authority to approve or disapprove the new road.

“I can’t really stop them,” he said. “My job is to see that the road construction meets standards.”

SCC Community Development director Frank Dillon declined to comment on the county’s role in approving the project.

“Community Development does not have enough information regarding the proposed road to provide comment on the potential impacts of the proposed ‘Cross Creek Connector’ at this time,” he wrote.

PARA, the local group that opposes mining in the Patagonia Mountains, has spoken out against the proposed route.

“PARA is opposed to this route because this is a radical transformation of rural residential property and we should all be concerned about the ability of a corporation to use/misuse existing laws,” said PARA Board member Carolyn Shafer. “PARA is actively pursuing all legal actions and political options and will be working to educate the public about this developing story.”