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Forest Service extends comment period on Rosemont mine project

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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Forest Service has extended the public comment period on the proposed Rosemont Copper mine after a flood of comments jammed the service’s email inbox to overflowing.

The extension, officially announced Friday in the Federal Register, will give the public until Jan. 31 to weigh in on the mining project planned for the Coronado National Forest.

The Forest Service extended the public comment period past the original Jan. 18 deadline after the project’s inbox filled up and began rejecting emails, said Heidi Schewel, the Coronado National Forest’s spokeswoman.

“A bunch of people tried to go on the last day and submit comments and apparently the system crashed,” said Randy Serraglio, Southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Despite the malfunction, the Forest Service had received more than 11,500 comments as of Thursday.

A spokesman for Rosemont Copper said it supported the comment-period extension, saying it is important that everyone have a chance to weigh in.

“We welcome opposition because in every opposition you can get good feedback to help the project as it moves forward,” said Dan Ryan, the spokesman.

Rosemont has been facing opposition from environmentalists and conservationists since it began pushing for the project in 2007.

The latest setback for the Tucson company came earlier this month when the Environmental Protection Agency wrote to the Army Corps of Engineers, which is reviewing the project for compliance with the Clean Water Act. In the letter, the EPA let the corps know the project was a candidate for review in Washington.

“That signals to the Army Corps of Engineers that they better analyze this application very, very closely,” Serraglio said. “It’s a very unusual move by the EPA. Very unusual. They don’t do this very often.”

But Ryan said he did not think the EPA letter is a bad sign for the project.

“We know that this kind of scrutiny is forthcoming because we want to make sure that our I’s are dotted and our T’s are crossed,” he said. “We just want to make sure that it benefits everybody.

“This is a project that is undergoing more scrutiny than any other mine in the history of the industry, so we’re working hand in hand with those agencies to push the project forward in a positive light,” Ryan said.

But Serraglio said the EPA letter essentially echoed concerns of environmental groups who charge the project could contaminate water supplies, impact endangered species, harm air quality, endanger public health and safety, and more.

“Rosemont, they’ve had trouble putting together the data showing that their mine is not going to pollute and their mine is not going to cause negative impact, because they can’t show that,” he said. “Because it will. It will pollute and it will cause negative impact.”

The company has said the mine would create 450 to 500 direct jobs and as many as 1,600 indirect jobs. Ryan said about 7.7 billion pounds of copper are expected to be extracted during the mine’s 20- to 22-year lifespan and that a “safe” estimate would value that copper at $15 billion.

He said Rosemont Copper is confident it will get the permits it needs because it is working closely with the Forest Service to make sure it fills any requirements.

“We have been working with them in each and every permitting phase and we feel that we have gone above and beyond the call of duty,” he said.

The Forest Service is required to review and respond to every comment under the National Environmental Policy Act, said Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club.

“They have to provide the public a time to comment, and they have to respond,” she said. “They can’t just blow them off.”

For that reason, she said extending the comment period is the right move by the Forest Service.

“A lot of people, I think, thought their comments got submitted, but they didn’t,” Bahr said.

For her part, Bahr thinks the Coronado National Forest is wrong place for a mine.

“It will totally decimate this part of Southern Arizona if it’s allowed to go forward,” said Bahr, adding that the mine would destroy the landscape and industrialize it. “This is a national forest that belongs to all of us, all of the American people.”