EARTHWORKS

Patagonia Mountains

United States | Arizona : Wildcat Silver

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Drill rigs and exploratory road building at the site of the Hermosa project. This hill may one day be a massive open pit processing 16,500 tons of ore per day. Other projects in the area are also being advanced now. Glen E Goodwin photo.

Not to be confused with its similarly named mountains on the border of Argentina and Chile, the other Patagonia Mountains sit in southern Arizona about 15 miles from the Mexican border. The mountains – which ascend to over 7,000 feet –  provide the scenic backdrop for the quiet town of Patagonia, as well as a major portion of the town’s water supply.

Though European explorers combed the hills as early as the 17th century, by the late 19th century miners were pulling copper, silver and lead from the mountains from tiny artisanal mines dug by hand.  These mines – despite them closing decades ago – have left a legacy of contamination problems still felt today.

“Patagonia's historical mining left us with polluted water and abandoned sites even though mining ended by 1960,” said Wendy Russell, coordinator for the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance.  “I am not eager to see history repeated.”

But if history is repeated, it will be on a scale never seen before in Patagonia.  Historic mines, often looked upon with the wonder of a gone era despite the contamination, consisted of small cabins, narrow tunnels and trails.  Within a few years, they could be replaced by industrial haul roads buzzing with the sound of house-sized trucks, thousand foot deep pits, and outbuildings and infrastructure rivaling the scale of the town itself.

“The degradation of the local environment and all the amenities it supports would be an impact that could destroy our local economy,” said Nancy McCoy, a Bed and Breakfast owner in Patagonia. “Yes, there are good reasons to be concerned.”

Patagonia Mountains threatened by 5 mining projects

Indeed, the Patagonia Mountains are targeted by numerous companies, with 5 exploration projects underway now at various levels of progress.  The largest project, Hermosa, is being advanced by Wildcat Silver, a Canadian junior mining company basesd in Vancouver.  Its proposed project would be an open pit mine processing 16,500 tons of ore per day and consuming enormous amounts of water and energy; likely enough of each to meet the needs of thousands of homes.  And that is just one project.

“After experiencing 13 years of continuous drought, all water is precious,” said Russell.

Like many communities surrounded by federal lands – in this case the Coronado National Forest – Patagonia has little say in the fate of this mountain range thanks to the 1872 Mining Law, which gives mining companies the right to mine lands owned by the government without paying royalties.  What’s worse, the nearby communities don’t have a say if mining should occur, as there is no democratic process behind mining on federal lands.  Indeed, mining is the law of the land whether a community likes it or not.

Water at risk

As we have seen in so many other cases, large scale mining often comes with major water contamination risks, and the bigger the project, the larger the risks.  Wildcat Silver proposes to mine in the middle of Patagonia’s municipal watershed, and if the historic mines are any indication, polluted water could flow for generations towards town, just like has happened at the historic Keystone Mine within the town watershed of Crested Butte, Colorado.  Without pumping the water to a treatment plant, which requires pumping over a million dollars a year into the operation, the town’s water supply will be contaminated for as long into the future as anyone can see. 

That’s only one example of a community faced with the perpetual contamination problems of mines, and while technology has certainly improved to mitigate these problems while a mine is operating, what hasn’t changed – and may never change – is the long term water contamination that in many cases is simply not preventable.  Hard questions about the risks in Patagonia need to be asked now, not after mining companies are deep into the federal permitting process and are ready to build a polluting mine.

What's left of Main Street in Hayden, AZ -- decades after the last mining boom.
What’s left of main street in Hayden, Arizona, after the mining boom of decades past.
Photo: TheirMineOurStories.org

An unknown fate

Currently, road building, groundwater pumping, and exploratory drilling are slated to continue at the Hermosa project while people in Patagonia ponder the fate of the community they love, the silence and beauty that surrounds it, and the water that supplies it.  Other projects are also gaining steam while the resources are proved up.  What will become of Patagonia should it become an industrial town? Looking to other communities in Arizona where this has occurred before, not a whole lot is left.

The people of Patagonia should have a voice, not just about how a mine or several mines are developed, but if they should be developed at all.  If a mining company can’t prove that it can operate cleanly, and be closed completely, without perpetual care, it shouldn’t be built at all.  Otherwise, the decision should be made within the community, not by the federal government, and certainly not by the Canadian executives in Vancouver, and their wealthy investors around the world.

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