Copper Mine Opposition Grows as Senate Land Swap Bill Moves Forward

Gale Courey Toensing

SAN CARLOS, Arizona—Land swap legislation that would pave the way for a controversial copper mining operation on land that is sacred to the Apaches is inching forward in the Senate.

The massive underground mining project is fiercely opposed by the San Carlos Apache Tribe and other southwestern nations, the Sierra Club and local environmental groups, who fear the mine will devastate the water and land on Oak Flats – part of the Apaches’ ancestral territory now held in trust as public land by the federal government.

The proposed Senate bill—S. 409—was sponsored by Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., and co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The bill was supported by the Bush administration and opposed by the Obama administration last year, but in December the bipartisan Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources approved a compromise bill with amendments.


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The bill would give around 2,400 acres of public land in southeastern Arizona to Resolution Copper Co. in exchange for around 5,000 acres in several parcels around the state.

Resolution is a Delaware-based subsidiary of the giant multinational Rio Tinto, which is headquartered in London and Australia. The company announced profits of $6.3 billion last year.

The Oak Flats and nearby Apache Leap and Devil’s Canyon provide a varied landscape of forests, streams, desert, grasslands, craggy mountains, and huge rock formations with ancient petroglyphs. The land is sacred to Native people, who conduct ceremonies and gather acorns and medicinal plants there. The public land is also used by non-Native nature
lovers for hiking, camping, bird watching and rock climbing, and is used for field trips by Boy Scout groups.

In May 2006, the San Carlos Apache council passed a resolution opposing the land swap on intertwined religious and environmental grounds, citing tribal, state and federal laws, including the National Historic Preservation Act, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and Executive Order 13007—Protection of Indian Sacred Sites. The National Congress of American Indians also passed a resolution opposing the mine.

A coalition of six Arizona tribes has gathered more than 4,000 signatures opposing the mine in an online petition, and the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, working in partnership with the tribes, testified against the project at a Senate committee hearing two years ago.

“The one thing that ties us all together in this is the water,” said San Carlos Apache Tribe Chairman Wendsler Nosie. “Once that water is polluted and destroyed, where do we go? The land is holy and sacred, but my argument is not just for the Apache people, but for the people in the surrounding towns, for those people who are not aware of the issues, for those who leave their lives in the hands of mayors and councils and legislators, who aren’t saying this, so I’ll say it for them: The water is life. The water is what’s going to sustain the future.”

Last year, McCain tried to push the bill through without the required review under NEPA, but ran into opposition from the Obama administration. That attempted waiver and plans to remove the desert nesting bald eagle from the endangered species list directly benefit the corporation, Nosie said.

“Resolution can wine and dine and do what they do in Washington, but if they get rid of the eagle and the Indian people, then there’s no one to tell them, no, this is wrong, stop doing this, you’re taking more than enough.”

Unrestrained corporations are an existential threat to Indian peoples, he said.

“We’re at the crossroads where we’re totally going to assimilate or we’re not, we’re going to hang on to our religious beliefs, and to do that we need the land. That’s what we were told – that our last struggle would be for our religious beliefs.”

The legislators and other supporters of the copper mine say the project will bring 1,200 much needed jobs to an area hit hard by the recession.

But focusing on the “quick fix” of jobs that will disappear when the mining operation ends ignores the big picture and the moral responsibility to protect the earth.

“People who think money is first over water and land, such as some people in Washington, are destroying the earth and that’s where our argument is. That’s wrong. You cannot do that, and that’s why I’m standing up for this,” Nosie said.

U.S. Rep. Anne Kirkpatrick, who introduced a companion bill to S. 409 in Congress—H.R. 2509—thinks development and conservation are not mutually exclusive.

“The Congresswoman believes there is a way to balance creating jobs in the region and respecting tribal land and protecting the environment, and she has worked hard throughout this process to find that balance. For example, it is important to note that the updated version of this legislation requires a full National Environmental Policy Act environmental impact statement and direct tribal consultation,” Kirkpatrick’s Chief of Staff Michael Frias said.

But the amendments highlight the fact that the original bill disregarded current law, including the requirement for a NEPA review when an exchange of public land is proposed, said Sandy Bahr, president of the Sierra Club’s Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. “They put in the amendments that there will be consultation with the tribes, but NEPA already requires that. So, they put a lot of stuff that is already required by law to make it seem like they were doing a lot more than they’re really doing.”

The bill is still an end run around environmental protection, and would allow Resolution to begin exploratory drilling before the NEPA review is completed when by law the NEPA review should be completed before a land exchange is approved, Bahr said. Nosie said the bill should not move forward without the federal government fulfilling its obligation to consult with the tribes.

“My next step is the same as my first step and that is they cannot do anything until they meet in formal consultation with the tribes and NEPA must be following—it’s their law—and that’s what we’ve stood by.”


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