THE BLOG
08/08/2013 02:26 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2013

Public Interest Versus Private Greed

The refrain is all too common these days. The democratic and regulatory process circumvented in favor of big business interests at the expense of practically everything else. Think "Too Big To Fail Banks" -- the big banks produced record profits last quarter and yet our banking system, regulated with a weak Dodds-Frank bill, has never been at greater risk of collapsing in a heap -- with taxpayers picking up the tab if these behemoths fail.

Closer to home, southern Arizonans are dealing with a Canadian mining company, Augusta Resource Corporation, that is using its investors' money to buy political support to acquire permits that would allow it to blast a one-mile wide, half-mile deep, open-pit copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson. If the mine gets all of its permits and is approved, Augusta's subsidiary, Rosemont Copper Company, will dump billions of tons of toxic mine waste burying some 4,000 acres of canyons, streams and prime wildlife habitat on the Coronado National Forest.

Rosemont is rushing to get its permits and a Record of Decision from the U.S. Forest Service before it runs out of money. But it's not just money at stake in this fight but the public's health. Two of the most contentious permits would allow Rosemont to pollute southern Arizona's air and water supplies. Local ranchers, residents and business owners have long suspected that Rosemont has had, and continues to have, undue and inappropriate influence over the issuance of these permits.

And it's no wonder. In 2011, a federal judge in Tucson confirmed those suspicions when he found that Rosemont and the U.S. Forest Service had been meeting secretly to discuss the critically important Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) that is suppose to analyze the mine's environmental and economic impacts. In a written ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Frank R. Zapata found those meetings presented at the least an "appearance of impropriety."

In recent weeks, new information has emerged revealing that Arizona regulators, ostensibly charged with protecting public health and safety, exchanged nearly three dozen emails with the governor's office that could show inappropriate and impermissible political influence in deliberations over Rosemont's air pollution permit. While that decision is supposed to be based only on technical and scientific public health information, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) has admitted that it had been engaging in a "deliberative process" with Governor Jan Brewer's office about the Rosemont air pollution permit -- and that those deliberations had nothing to do with protecting public health. On the contrary, descriptions of the emails provided in legal briefs suggest they appear to deal with jurisdictional issues, drafting press releases, a briefing memo, and news articles.

Hearings recently began on an appeal by opponents of that air pollution permit. Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, the southern Arizona coalition that filed the appeal, will present experts and evidence showing that Rosemont received their air pollution permit by manipulating scientific data to hide potential violations of state and federal air pollution standards. If the previously secret emails show that the governor's office and ADEQ violated the law that too will be introduced in evidence at the hearing.

But it doesn't stop there. More evidence has emerged that when it comes to Rosemont Copper, an "appearance of impropriety" is business as usual. Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch, whose staff was participating in those closed-door meetings that a federal judge found suspect, admitted in a recent newspaper interview that he is trying to meet "the needs" of Rosemont Copper by rushing out an incomplete environmental impact analysis in order to issue its final Record of Decision before addressing public concerns about the mine.

The "needs" that Upchurch is trying to meet appear tied to Augusta Resource's admission that if it doesn't receive its permits by September 30, the company could run out of cash and its "ability to continue as a going concern" would be in jeopardy.

If it isn't improper for the Forest Service -- whose mission is to protect public lands, not foreign mining companies and their investors -- to be cutting corners to meet Augusta's "needs," it's hard to imagine what is.

However, one public agency, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is doing the right thing. In a 2012 letter to Forest Supervisor Upchurch, the EPA called the Rosemont DEIS one of the worst it has ever reviewed and that the document underestimates the project's negative environmental effects. The EPA says it believes the mining project should not proceed as proposed.

Across this country, Congress and state legislatures continue to gut the budgets of agencies that were created not only for the protection of our health but also to protect the public from unscrupulous and predatory companies like Rosemont Copper. As Arizonans, we ask every day why the rights of a speculative, foreign mining company are more important than the air we breathe? We would like to hear an answer on this issue from our public officials, whom we have entrusted with so much.