One of the last actions of the Trump Administration will be approval of a controversial land swap to allow a massive copper mine on land held sacred to the Apache near Superior in southern Gila County.
The administration’s plan is to approve the required environmental analysis on Jan. 15, a year early. Certifying the assessment will allow the international mining company Rio Tinto to trade 5,300 acres land elsewhere for 2,400 acres at Oak Flats.
A coalition of Apache religious and cultural leaders this week filed a lawsuit in federal district court to block the transfer of Oak Flat, Chi’chil Bildagoteel. The lawsuit claims the transfer violates the Religious Restoration Act and constitutes a breach of trust and fiduciary duties.
The San Carlos and White Mountain Apache Tribes have both opposed the land transfer.
The mining company hopes to access a vast deposit of low-grade copper some 7,000 feet beneath the surface using robots and high-tech machines. The mining company has said it would remove 1.4 billion tons of tailings, which would be dumped nearby. By contrast, some underground mining operations replace the material removed, reducing the tailings and the collapse of the land at the surface. However, the company has said it could not turn a profit by using that method, given the quality of the copper ore deposits.
The operation could supply a quarter of the nation’s copper needs for years, but also create a crater at the surface that’s 1,000 feet deep and a mile wide. The crater would swallow up a scenic landscape of boulders popular with campers and rock climbers and considered sacred to the Apache, who gather traditional plants and materials from Oak Flats. It would also create a dangerously unstable area around the crater that would likely make the area off-limits to the public for generations.
Former Tonto National Forest Archaeologist Scott Wood concluded the waste pile — enough to cover an area four times the size of Central Park with waste 50 stories high — would cover thousands of archaeological sites.
“Oak Flat is holy and sacred. Chi’chil Bildagoteel is central to our traditional religion and identity as Apache people,” said former San Carlos Apache tribal chairman and Apache Stronghold leader Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. “Giving away our sacred land by the U.S. Government for destruction by a foreign mining company destroys our ability to practice our religion. It violates our First Amendment right to the free exercise of our religion protected by the Constitution.”
The mining company will still have to get construction permits from the incoming Biden Administration, which has promised to give Native American tribes a much larger voice in policies that affect them. While some members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe support the project and have worked for the mining company, others have blocked access to the site to stop the project. They maintain that Oak Flats and the nearby Apache Leap formation overlooking Superior are sacred sites, still important to tribal healers and shaman.
“Oak Flat is far too important to be sacrificed for corporate profit,” said Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We can’t let a corrupt president destroy this precious place on his way out the door. We’ll do everything possible to protect Oak Flat.”
On the other hand, economic development officials in the region hope that the revival of the mining industry will provide jobs and economic benefits to a hard-pressed region, with less environmental impact than a conventional open-pit mine.
Strong support and record voter turnouts on Arizona’s reservations proved crucial in President-elect Joe Biden’s upset win in Arizona. He has pledged an ambitious set of policies to cope with health woes and poverty on the nation’s reservations — as well as giving tribes more say in federal land policies that affect them.
Biden has nominated New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland to run the Interior Department, the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history.
However, the site is controlled by the US Forest Service, not the Interior Department. Biden nominated Tom Vilsack to run that department. Vilsack also served as Agricultural Secretary during the tenure of President Barack Obama. He therefore approved the early stages of the land swap for the mine, with the condition the backers complete the environmental assessment due to be released on Friday.
Rio Tinto has said it may take several years to obtain the construction permits and perhaps a decade to actually begin mining operations. It could take many additional years for the removal of ore 7,000 feet beneath the surface to begin causing the collapse at the surface.
The global rush to develop renewable energy, computers, electric vehicles and other electronic devices has already caused a tightening in copper supplies world-wide. Forecasts predict a global shortage of copper in 2025 thanks to the growing global use of electronics, with many devices dependent on copper as conductors in key components.
Nonetheless, the Rio Tinto project has suffered a long, controversial history since. Rio Tinto discovered the roughly 550,000 tons of copper ore in 1995.
Then-Arizona Sen. John McCain spent seven years trying to win passage of the 2,422-acre Southeast Arizona Land Exchange Conservation Act through Congress. Rio Tinto bought up 5,300 acres of land — much of it along the endangered San Pedro River — to swap for the Tonto National Forest Land. One effort in 2005 was sunk after then Rep. Rick Renzi was entangled in a scandal involving land swaps favoring a business partner.
McCain finally slipped the land exchange through in a 1,600-page, $500-billion, must-pass defense authorization bill, with a rule preventing any amendments to the bill.
One analysis concluded the operation would create 3,700 well-paying jobs and pump $64 billion into the state’s economy, adding $20 billion in tax revenues while bolstering U.S. natural resource protection.
At one point, former Payson Mayor Kenny Evans was in negotiations with the giant mining company to establish a school of robotic mining affiliated with the University of Arizona and based on a proposed university complex in Payson. It’s unclear whether those plans are still viable in the event the Biden Administration ultimately approves the construction permits.
Rio Tinto has already invested some $2 billion in the project, including sinking the world’s deepest mining shaft.
Some critics want to start over, with a different land swap and more consideration for a less destructive mining technique. For instance, “cut and fill” techniques would put the waste material back into the excavated areas, greatly reducing the collapse at the surface. The company has suggested those techniques would not be economical, even at current copper prices.
Rio Tinto Chair Scott Thompsons said he is “determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional and cultural significance never occurs again at a Rio Tinto operation.”
Environmental groups blasted the decision to rush release of the environmental assessment, which will then clear the way for the land swap.
Resolution Copper — the local subsidiary of Rio Tinto — this week announced it had completed a $75-million restoration project to restore 475 acres of land buried in tailings from the Magma Copper Mine near Superior.
The company had bought out the Magma Copper Mine and finished the restoration work years ahead of schedule, providing roughly two-dozen local jobs. The mine operated between 1924 and 1971.
Resolution Copper Mining is a company owned jointly by Rio Tinto and BHP Copper, both Australian companies.