/ Modified may 10, 2024 11:38 a.m.

Forest Service begins public scoping period for South32 Hermosa Mine Project

If approved the mine will supply zinc and manganese.

South32 Entrance The entrance of the South32 Hermosa mine site, a critical minerals project that looks to source manganese and zinc.
Katya Mendoza, AZPM News

The Hermosa Mine Project wants to help the nation achieve its decarbonization goals, but nearby residents have no interest in having a mine in their backyard.

The project, which hopes to source two federally recognized critical minerals: zinc and manganese, to meet the demand for batteries for electric vehicles, will come from the Patagonia Mountains, just six miles southeast of the town of Patagonia.

Although actual mining is still a ways away, South32 officials say they hope to officially obtain the first production of zinc by the first half of 2027.

Pat Risner, president of the Hermosa project says in February, the zinc deposit moved into the construction phase after the project’s board of directors made the decision to advance the project from a feasibility study into full construction and development.

“Which will occur over the next three years for first production in 2027,” Risner said.

Starting today however, the United States Forest Service (Forest Service), the lead regulatory agency for the project, has initiated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) with the publication of a Notice of Intent (NOI) to prepare the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in the Federal Register. What that means is an extensive analysis from subject matter experts that will look at the environmental impact of the proposed actions, according to the acting project manager with the Forest Service, Ed Monin.

The standard practice for the NEPA process is a 30-day scoping period, followed by a 45-day draft EIS comment period which in this case, is scheduled to occur in May 2025.

“Those who commented during either of those periods, they will be eligible to comment during an additional 45-day objection period, that’s scheduled to occur in February 2026,” Monin said, noting that it did come to the agency’s attention to enhance its engagement with the public beyond the standard in order to provide information for public involvement opportunities and the NEPA process.

As first reported by the Patagonia Regional Times, both the Town of Patagonia and Santa Cruz County officials submitted letters to the lead agency requesting an extension for the public scoping period.

In a letter submitted on April 18, by the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, the elected officials stated that because the county is predominantly Hispanic, “It is not only beneficial to USFS and the Biden Administration, it is beneficial to the Santa Cruz County to employ an engagement process that ensures the entire community has been effectively educated and fully understands the impacts of the Hermosa Project, as well as, informed of the range of possible alternatives that mitigate adverse impacts.”

Bruce Bracker, supervisor for District 3 in Santa Cruz County, says the goal of the letter was to hold forums where the water recharges, the drilling pads, the power line, the haul roads, or the new tailings facility would go.

The letter also states that 78% of county residents speak Spanish as a first language.

“What we’re trying to do really with this letter is advocate for the community, have the Forest Service do outreach into our community in a way that our community could understand it,” Bracker said. “Because it’s the dead air where all the misinformation lives.”

On May 6, the Forest Service released a pre-recorded educational webinar, in English and Spanish, for the public on the NEPA process. Later this month, there will be two in-person open houses for the public, one in Patagonia on May 20, and in one Nogales on May 21, with bilingual translators present.

“These meetings will also provide a platform for public comment, either electronically or written,” Monin said.

Any time there is a federal investment or federal permit or approval that is required, typically NEPA is going to be triggered, says Eric Beightel, the executive director of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (FPISC).

“And then an environmental impact statement, anytime there’s going to be a significant effect,” Beightel said.

The FPISC is an independent agency that serves as a help desk amongst federal agencies for big infrastructure projects as well as the development of permitting timetables. It was established in 2015, by Title 41 of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST-41).

“There needed to be some sort of a coordinating body to help drive these projects to completion or at least to a decision,” Beightel said.

Beightel describes the FAST-41 process as sort of a tool for concerned communities to provide visibility in the overall process.

The executive director, who President Joe Biden tapped in June 2023, oversees a portfolio of almost $100 billion in large-scale infrastructure projects across the renewable energy, broadband, and electricity transmission sectors.

“Ultimately, what we are bound by is whatever the federal requirements are,” Beightel said.

A procedural statute like NEPA serves as the umbrella statute that is supposed to inform all of the other permits, which in this case have been placed on the FAST-41 permitting dashboard.

Oftentimes, a project’s permitting events happen concurrently.

“The FAST-41 is a bit of a misnomer, it doesn’t mean that the project is going to be pushed along any faster than the NEPA process ordinarily would be, we don’t circumvent any portion of the NEPA process,” Monin said.

The NEPA process will take approximately two years and will identify recommended modifications and mitigation measures to the Mine Plan of Operations (MPO) and, is a separate requirement by the Forest Service, for all federal actions including mineral projects that have been determined to have more than a minor amount of ground disturbance and, or, the use of mechanized equipment according to the Forest Service.

In January, South32 released its “Critical Minerals Exploration and Mine Plan of Operations.

As required by 36 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 228, Subpart A regulations for proposed operations, the plan details operations on and beneath the Coronado National Forest (CNF), Sierra Vista Ranger District.

The 215-page document is an explanation of mining operations and the ancillary facilities needed to support future operations, said Brent Musslewhite, director of environment and permitting for the Hermosa Project.

He added that the plan of operation was intentionally made publically available sooner, but typically would be released by the Forest Service once the NOI is published.

The primary elements of the mine include the shafts, the primary portion of the ore body, the processing plant, the water treatment plants, and a tailings facility located on private land, Musslewhite said.

Additionally, according to the MPO, a new road for primary access would be constructed on Forest Service land and in some areas, connect existing Forest Service road segments to the project using State Route 82. This road would be open for public use throughout the project and after its closure.

Based on community feedback, a portion of this road alignment was moved parallel to an existing gas line to avoid a rural residential neighborhood located west of the project.

Existing segments that would be affected are Flux Canyon Road, Barriles Tank Road and Flux Road.

“We show the extent of mining so the ore body isn’t just centered under our private land, it actually goes out beyond and so there will be underground mining that would occur beyond our private land pieces,” Musslewhite said.

South32 officials say they anticipate additional exploratory activities.

“We have various exploration projects in early stages of exploration that are going on around the property,” Risner said.

The second element of the project, the manganese deposit which is what Risner calls the only advanced battery-grade manganese deposit in the US, is in a pre-feasibility study where studies and sampling of the ore body are taking place.

“We’ve not put a timeframe on it,” Risner said. “The unique part of the manganese deposit is it will be selling into a [developing] market.”

The president added that depending on estimates, there is approximately $80-100 billion of planned investment in the emerging electric vehicle battery manufacturing market in the US, over the next 10 years.

“Our project will move at a pace consistent with that development because it is targeting that domestic EV-battery market,” Risner said.

Despite ongoing federal processes, residents remain skeptical.

Robin Lucky, president of the Calabasas Alliance, a watchdog conservation group located in Santa Cruz County says many residents remain distrustful of the process.

The main concerns are the future location of the manganese processing facility and the issue of groundwater depletion and recharge within the mountain.

“The idea that the [Arizona Department of Environmental Quality] [has] a statutory obligation to grant these permits, give me a break, when did they stop working for the people of the state in a democratic way,” Lucky said.

According to ADEQ, the agency is still in the process of reviewing, considering, and responding to comments received during scheduled public comment periods for the draft Class I Air Quality permit and the draft Arizona Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (AZPDES) permit.

A spokesperson for ADEQ said they expect to decide on the AZPDES permit in the next few weeks and the air quality permit in the next few months.

South 32 is an underwriter on AZPM but exercises no editorial control.

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