The House of Representatives this week waived environmental laws and dismissed objections by Arizona Apache tribes to authorize the exchange of thousands of acres of federal land to allow a massive, underground copper mine in southern Gila County.
If the measure wins Senate approval and a presidential signature, it would create a copper mine that could supply a quarter of the U.S. annual demand for decades.
It could also generate an estimated 3,700 jobs and $2 billion a year in state and federal taxes, while potentially destroying a popular climbing and camping area and sites sacred to the Apache.
The Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act was authored by freshman Flagstaff Rep. Paul Gosar, who represents all of Rim Country. It could touch off an economic turnaround that would shift the balance of growth and power in Gila County decisively back to the south.
Gosar said, “During my first campaign for Congress, I made a promise to do all I can to help create jobs in Arizona. This legislation does just that and is a great start to putting Arizona back to work.”
Former Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, who Gosar defeated two years ago and is now seeking a rematch, hailed the vote as “a big step forward for the communities. I congratulate them for their perseverance and the progress they have made.”
However, she criticized the unusual provisions that approved the land swap before completion of either environmental studies or consultations with Apache tribes that consider the land sacred.
During her two years in Congress, Kirkpatrick sponsored a land swap bill that put the consultations and environmental studies first, but that bill never made it to the floor of the House.
The measure would exchange some 2,500 acres around the Oak Flats campground and Apache Leap near Superior for about 5,300 acres of other land scattered across the state. That includes about 1,200 acres in the Tonto National Forest that include archaeological sites and critical habitat for endangered species and 3,500 acres along the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona.
The land would allow two foreign-owned mining companies to proceed with an unusual mining operation that would mostly use robotic digging machines to excavate copper-rich veins 400 to 700 feet below the surface. The digging machines would hollow out vast chambers far beneath the surface. The eventual collapse of these great chambers would most likely cause the surface to sink into a great depression.
Backers said the land swap would protect many far-flung archaeological sites and endangered species, while inflicting minimal damage on the scenic, boulder-strewn Oak Flats and the jagged cliff-face known as Apache Leap.
Critics say the largely untested mining technique could have substantial impacts.
Moreover, the San Carlos, Tonto and White Mountain Apache tribes all asked for the federal government to meet with the tribes to exclude sacred sites before concluding the exchange. Other tribes appealing for steps to protect traditional sites include the Yavapai-Apache Nation, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, Hualapai Tribe, Jicarilla Apache Nation, Mescalero Apache Tribe and the Pueblo of Zuni.
A dissent attached to the bill signed mostly by congressional Democrats insisted the consultations should have come first.
The dissent noted that the mine would consume 40,000 acre-feet of water each year, enough to supply a city the size of Tempe. However, backers of the mining operation have not indicated where they would get the necessary water, said the dissent.
The critics also said the deal should have protected taxpayers by requiring the mining companies to pay royalties on the billions in copper ore extracted, rather than just buying land for exchange.