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$2.16 billion next-gen mining project in Patagonia Mountains raises water, wildlife concerns

The Southern Arizona Hermosa Project could make Santa Cruz County a critical region for mining raw minerals needed for renewable energy
Southern Arizona Hermosa Project
Posted at 6:14 PM, May 23, 2024

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY, Ariz. (KGUN) — Mining company South32 recently announced a $2.16 billion investment into the Southern Arizona Hermosa Project in Santa Cruz County.

The Southern Arizona Hermosa Project is located in the Patagonia Mountains within the Coronado National Forest. The mining project will be capable of producing both zinc and manganese, which are both classified as critical minerals.

Last year it became the first mining project to be added to the federal government’s FAST-41 permit program. Currently, the US Forest Service is accepting public comment on the mining project. Comments can be submitted through Monday, June 10.

The project’s president, Pat Risner, said this project is building the foundation for next-generation mining through its “Small surface footprint, reduced water consumption, as well as a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions long term.”

However, this has been met with some push back. Patagonia resident Joni Stellar is the chair of the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance (PARA), a local group advocating for the highest environmental standards for the Hermosa project.

“They don’t seem to have that level of responsibility toward the environment and towards humans as they claim to have,” Stellar said.

The company’s more-than $2 billion investment will go toward mining zinc-lead-silver deposits. This will be done with an underground mine. According to South32, the site could potentially be one the world’s largest producers of zinc.

Risner explained the need for zinc: “Renewable energy is much more zinc-intensive than fossil fuel energy, so as we start to make that energy transition to renewables, zinc will be important.”

As of right now, the company is still deciding if they want to pursue mining manganese at the site. Currently South Africa, Australia and China are the world’s leading producers, but Risner said it’s important to have a domestic supply.

“There's manganese in the cathode of every electric vehicle battery we're seeing the electric vehicle industry start to develop manufacturing facilities domestically in the US, so this would be a domestic source of manganese.”

Stellar worries about the potential impacts manganese mining could have on her community.

“We’re pushing them to have standards as strict as they have for lead, because this is a neurotoxin very similar to lead,” Stellar said.

Risner said all their materials and products moving off the site will be in sealed containers, along with having environmental and community health baseline assessments and a good neighbor agreement with the local communities.

In regard to the good neighbor agreement he said, “(it) will memorialize and bind us to commitments we’re going to make around environmental monitoring, above and beyond what our permits require.”

Stellar said PARA’s biggest concerns are water, wildlife and air.

“They’re planning to de-water the mountain, which sounds crazy to me, taking all the water out of a mountain,” Stellar said. “We’re concerned about the springs drying up and wildlife not being able to access water during their migration.”

Rinser said their water usage will be 75% to 90% less than traditional mines. “We have looked at all of the historic concerns around environmental issues in mining and doing deliberate things that are new technology, state of the art developments or a new approach to try to address those,” Risner said. “So the first new dry stack tailings facility in the US which reduces our surface footprint, but also reduces water consumption.”

If both mining projects move forward, this could create about 900 jobs with South32. According to the company, about 80% of their operational workforce will be current Santa Cruz County residents.

South32 offers public tours of the site the first Friday of each month.

Madison Thomas joined KGUN 9 in July of 2023 as a multimedia journalist. She graduated from Arizona State University in May of 2023 with a degree in journalism and mass communication. She has lived in Arizona her entire life and grew up in Douglas. Madison is thrilled to share the stories from the community she grew up in. Share your story ideas and important issues with Madison by emailing or by connecting on InstagramTwitter or Facebook.