Visitors to the South32 open house discuss the proposed route for mine traffic with South32 Community Manager, Melanie Lawson. Photo by Robert Gay

The transportation route table drew the most visitors during the Open House hosted by South32 at Patagonia High School on March 24. The event was held to provide information and discussion with the public on mining methods, tailings and storage, exploration, water and wildlife, transportation routes, and jobs. During the two-hour period there were 40 to 50 members of the public present at any one time along with a host of mining personnel and consultants.  

When Raul Pina, consultant engineer for the mine, was asked a question about a potential truck route near the Nogales Airport south of Flux Canyon that might avoid Patagonia, Sonoita and Elgin, he stated, “most of that route is on Forest Service land and for us to do any improvements for a departure road, we would have to comply with a NEPA (environmental) study, so the timing is the same as Flux Canyon. If you are looking for what is the best solution we can find, and we are talking about 10 years, and this (pointing to the Flux Canyon Route) gets developed, we can go south.” The Flux Canyon route includes Forest Service Land and would also require a NEPA study.

The mine anticipates that the extensive process for building or improving roads on Forest Service land will most likely not be completed when the ore trucks are ready to roll out so a “temporary” route would take the trucks either to Nogales on SR 82 or the rail head in Tucson via SRs 82 to 83 to I-10. “One thing being talked about right now,” Pina said, “is do you take all traffic to Nogales, or all traffic to the north on 82/83, or do you go half the truck traffic each way?” He also mentioned maybe a 60/40 split. 

South32 projects that the ore trucks will begin transporting in 2027, five years from now. Building the Flux Canyon Road route may take 10 or more years, so they must find an alternative route for the anticipated five-year gap which they refer to as the “temporary” route.   

Local resident Phil Burdine stated, “My concern at this time is the mining trucks going out of here on SR83 which is already a dangerous highway and always in need of repair. With all the mining truck traffic how will it be maintained and accommodate the increased traffic?” Melanie Lawson, South32 Community Manager, responded that those are things that would be looked at by the county, and initially it would probably be 30 trucks a day. When asked by a participant to combine all the other vehicles with the ore trucks and calculate a 24-hour period both directions, Lawson said she did not have the total number and they are doing everything they can to reduce the number of vehicles on the road.  

Anita Kay, owner of Tia Nita’s in Sonoita, asked Lawson if the trucks would travel west to Nogales or north on 82/83. Lawson responded that the route for concentrate trucks is still to be determined in the next phase, so it is still “up in the air.” Kay commented that SR83 is a designated scenic highway packed with bicyclists, the road is not maintained, and shoulders are not cleared. “We can have bikes two and three abreast and it is scary enough for horse trailers and now you are proposing to add a bunch of semis to the mix. I really hope that you do more studies on this because what the county is trying to grow on the east side may not be quite matching up with the industrial implications that you are going to be driving through our town,” she said.  

Kay also projected safety concerns that could lead to loss of life on 83 due to increased traffic and trucks. Lawson said the mine will do a study required by ADOT to determine if they need to improve shoulders, bike lanes, passing lanes for certain stretches and all of that will be determined. Kay added, “Seeing that SCC is split into two sectors, one being more commercial and industrial and the other being more tourist related, I would think there would be a hell of a lot less people impacted going straight over to the industrial corridor instead of taking it through the scenic highway that is a twist and turning little mountain road.” A Patagonia resident added, “From the Cross Creek Connector, either going through Patagonia to Nogales or going 82 through Sonoita to 83 is not good either way you look at it.”

Santa Cruz County Consultant Engineer Rob Lane mentioned an ADOT requirement for an encroachment permit. “ADOT will look at traffic volumes, condition of the road, modifications, peak travel hours, and intersections,” said Lane. The PRT subsequently reached out to Richard La Pierre, the AZ Statewide Encroachment Permit Program Manager, who pointed out that before ADOT would even think about issuing an Encroachment Permit with a development (mine) impacting the roadway with traffic, they are required to submit a traffic impact analysis to ADOT Southcentral Traffic Engineering. He added that traffic from the mine has to get from point A to point B and ADOT, working with the mine, must ensure that this occurs in safest way possible. Prior studies on Rosemont Copper Mine brought to light several issues in the use of SR 83, requiring the mine to design an interchange off the state route, put in concrete sections and increase turning radiuses based on truck traffic generated, add acceleration and deceleration lanes, and address concerns that road structure would probably fall apart because it is a residential rural road, according to La Pierre. An environmental study would also be required. 

La Pierre also expressed concerns about paying for repairs, as ADOT and the counties have limited budgets. Should taxpayers have to pay to repair damage caused by the mine?

Lawson added that South32 plans to kick off their Social Impact Assessment probably in April. “We will do interviews with businesses across SCC, County Government, State Government, and local stakeholders so that we can better understand the everchanging tourism industry and what is growing in Sonoita,” she said. 

Jenny Fiore-Magana, Communications Director for the Hermosa Project said, “People are impatient for answers because they are concerned with their property and communities. It’s hard to convey that there is much more work to be done.”