The controversial effort to approve a massive copper mine in southern Gila County took another hit this week with release of an opinion poll showing that perhaps 74% of Arizonans polled oppose moving forward with the permit for the mine.
The poll showed that most people opposed the mine even after listening to arguments on both sides. That included 87% of Democrats, 81% of independents and 56% of Republicans.
Resolution Copper has already spent nearly $2 billion seeking approval of a mine that could ultimately supply a quarter of the nation’s annual appetite for copper, a critical component for electric cars, solar cells, computers and a host of expanding businesses.
However, the mine would ultimately consume a scenic landscape of granite boulders sacred to the Apache and popular with rock climbers, hikers and campers. The mine would operate with robots deep underground, but would ultimately cause that landscape to collapse into a crater nearly two miles wide and 1,000 feet deep. The mine would also produce about 1.4 billion tons of waste, which could bury surrounding waterways and perhaps contaminate groundwater.
The Trump administration had given final approval to a land exchange and an environmental impact statement. However, the Biden administration in March put the land exchange on hold to review the environmental impact statement. Then in June the U.S. Justice Department filed a brief in a lawsuit arguing the land exchange should go forward because it did not violate laws or treaties protecting the religious rights of Native Americans.
The exchange of thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive lands elsewhere in the state for the roughly 2,400 acres affected by the proposed mine remains on hold for now.
A measure that could cancel the land exchange awaits a vote in Congress, which would also offer long-term protection to Oak Flat.
“Arizonans understand how utterly destructive this mine would be to public lands, groundwater supplies and Native American sacred sites,” said Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Congress should protect this sacred place instead of doing favors for multinational mining companies looking to exploit our precious public lands.”
The poll found that 58% were strongly opposed and 17% somewhat opposed — for a total of 75%, when first asked.
After the pollster read the arguments against the mine, opposition rose to 83%.
However, if the pollster just read the arguments in favor, opposition dropped to 49%.
Once people heard both arguments, opposition returned to the original 73%. About 13% said they weren’t sure and 13% said they supported the project.
Rio Tinto, the international mining company pushing the project that owns Resolution Copper, has been seeking approval for some 26 years. The project would produce 20 million tons of copper in 40 years. The operation would operate a mile beneath the surface, relying on massive robotic diggers to bore into the low-grade copper deposit.
The proposed mining method would remove the rock, use chemicals to extract the copper, then discard the waste rock. Other methods of deep mining could return the waste rock to the massive underground caverns, avoiding the collapse at the surface. However, the company indicated this would be too expensive for the ore concentrations. As a result, the caverns would likely ultimately collapse and cause the giant crater to form at the surface.
Copper prices have risen some 30% in the past year, driven by the growing shift to copper-intensive “green” technologies like electric cars as well as wind, solar and hydro sources of power. Copper is one of the most efficiently recycled minerals in use, so economists predict the shortage of copper will likely grow more acute — with many easily mined deposits already tapped.
Environmentalists have objected to the proposed mine since its inception, citing the growing shortage of groundwater and the contamination risk posed by the mountain of tailings, laced with the chemicals needed to extract the trace of copper from the rock. They maintain the mine would use enough water to supply a city of 140,000 and bury 16,000 acres of wildlands.
Some Apache groups have now joined in the protests and lawsuits, saying Oak Flat remains sacred. Apache healers still gather plants and other materials from the area. The mining company has promised to allow continued public access to Oak Flat for decades to come, but the eventual collapse of the mined caverns deep beneath the surface would likely eventually make the area unsafe.
The fine print of the opinion poll shows that the Forest Service enjoys far more credibility with the public than the politicians who have weighed in on either side of the issue.
The poll showed that 66% of those surveyed had a favorable opinion of the Forest Service — and only 9% an unfavorable view.
Compare that to the politicians: President Joe Biden, 48% favorable and 48% unfavorable; Gov. Doug Ducey — 35% favorable and 56% unfavorable.
As for Resolution Copper, 61% had never heard of the company. So only 6% had a favorable opinion and 10% an unfavorable opinion.
Some 32% said they had a favorable opinion of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and 5% an unfavorable view.