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Groups claim Forest Service illegally approved southern Arizona mining projects

A group of environmental and community organizations has  filed suit to stop a pair of mining exploration projects in southern Arizona’s Patagonia Mountains. 

Those part of the suit say these two projects pose risks to a diverse biosphere of wildlife. They say the U.S. Forest Service failed to assess those risks before green-lighting the projects.

Scott Stern is an attorney with EarthJustice who is representing the groups.

"And so we’re asking the court to step in and tell the government, 'no, '... you need to take a much harder look before you allow years of drilling to happen in this biodiverse and very fragile region," he said. 

The groups argue the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. It’s a far-reaching law that requires the federal government to conduct studies to figure out the environmental impact of mining, construction or other projects proposed on federal land. 

Stern says while a small-scale environmental assessment was done on the Sunnyside project — the larger of the two proposed drilling endeavors — more consideration is needed. They are asking the court to put a hold on any drilling operations while the suit proceeds.

Stern says the Forest Service is in the final stages of fully approving the projects. The groups challenging them hope the judge puts the case on hold long enough to prevent drilling from starting up, which could happen as soon as final approval comes down.

The groups also filed a notice of intent for another suit, this one hinging on the Endangered Species Act. If it proceeds, that suit would argue the federal government violated the law but not considering the impacts of drilling on endangered species like Mexican spotted owls and Western yellow-billed cuckoos, both of which live in the Patagonia range.

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Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.