Conservation groups asked a federal judge today for a preliminary injunction to stop the launch of two mineral exploration projects in southern Arizona’s Patagonia Mountains. Today’s move comes after the groups filed a lawsuit in June challenging the U.S. Forest Service’s approval of the drilling projects, which could result in around-the-clock drilling in the biologically sensitive habitat for up to seven years.
The groups also filed a notice of their intent to sue the Biden administration over violations of the Endangered Species Act unless approval of the exploration projects is revoked within 60 days. The groups say the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to accurately assess the risks the mining projects pose to Mexican spotted owls and Western yellow-billed cuckoos, two of the threatened species that live in the Patagonia Mountains.
“If allowed to proceed, these mineral exploration projects will forever harm the Patagonia Mountains and Sonoita Creek watershed,” said Carolyn Shafer, board president and mission coordinator at the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance. “We are hopeful the judge will step in to stop these reckless mining projects and protect the biodiversity and clean water of this spectacular region.”
The Sunnyside and Flux Canyon exploration projects, seeking copper and other minerals, would damage fragile riparian areas and deplete and potentially contaminate precious aquifers and surface water. The projects also threaten critical breeding and migration habitats for endangered species like jaguars and ocelots, as well as threatened Mexican spotted owls and yellow-billed cuckoos.
“Bulldozers and drill rigs could soon descend on this peaceful corner of the Patagonia Mountains, plowing over endangered species habitat and forever marring these wild and biologically rich canyons,” said Laiken Jordahl, Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We urge the judge to block work at these sites before permanent harm is done.”
The coalition’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson, says the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to analyze the cumulative harm Sunnyside, Flux Canyon, and other nearby mineral exploration projects would have on public lands, water, and endangered species.
“Road construction and drilling should not go forward in the Patagonia Mountains before we get our day in court,” said Scott Stern, associate attorney for Earthjustice’s Biodiversity Defense Program. “We are asking the judge to prevent environmental damage that threatens imperiled wildlife and irreplaceable natural areas.”
The Sunnyside and Flux Canyon projects would construct up to 36 well pads for drilling exploratory shafts thousands of feet deep, threatening to contaminate groundwater and jeopardize the water supply of the nearby town of Patagonia.
“We’re asking the court to immediately stop the U.S. Forest Service from unlawfully approving this seven-year-long drilling project that would block people from using public recreation lands and bulldoze habitat for jaguars and Mexican spotted owls,” said Rob Peters, executive director of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas. “Unless we’re granted this preliminary injunction, destruction of the Patagonia Mountains could start imminently.”
The Patagonia Mountains provide a key corridor for jaguars and ocelots moving north from Mexico through a border wall gap to their range in the United States. Recently a jaguar is believed to have traversed the Patagonia Mountains before being documented in the nearby Santa Rita Mountains. The mining projects also threaten to harm Harshaw Creek, a fragile riparian area teeming with biodiversity.
Earthjustice and the Western Mining Action Project are representing the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, the Tucson Audubon Society, Earthworks, the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, Friends of the Santa Cruz River, and Friends of Sonoita Creek in the lawsuit.