Superior mayor, tribal officials spar over bill to stop Oak Flat mine

Planning on the Resolution Copper mine near Superior has been going on for years, as have protests like the one at this encampment in 2016. Opponents say the mine will destroy Oak Flat, an area sacred to the San Carlos Apache, and cause environmental harm. Supporters say the mine will produce jobs and much-needed copper. (File photo by Bri Cossavella/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – The mayor of Superior told a House panel Tuesday that a bill canceling a massive copper mine at Oak Flat would be “devastating” for the Pinal County town and its hopes to revitalize its economy.

“We need to create jobs and business opportunities for our youth and working adults, so our community remains viable for generations to come,” Mayor Mila Besich told a House Natural Resources subcommittee.

But while Besich testified against a bill to reverse the land deal that cleared the way for the Resolution Mine, others said the environmental and cultural danger the mine presents call for the project’s cancellation. Tribal groups in particular said the mine would destroy Oak Flat, land that the San Carlos Apache consider sacred and use for religious ceremonies and rituals.

“These are things that are absolutely essential to our identity and to our spiritual health,” said National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp, when asked to balance the benefits of the mine with the cultural damage. “It’s unconscionable to think that we’re even having that question.”

An environmental consultant also said at the hearing that the mine would consume billions of gallons over the course of its life, which he called too high a cost in a desert state currently in the grips of a historic drought.

Their testimony came as the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States considered a bill by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, that would repeal a portion of the fiscal 2015 Defense budget known as the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange.

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That language, added at the last minute in December 2014 as an amendment to the must-pass budget bill, set in motion the transfer of 5,459 acres of land in the area from Resolution Copper to the federal government in exchange for 2,422 acres of copper-rich federal land.

Under the deal, the land swap could not go through until a final environmental impact statement was approved, after years of study and planning on the environmental and cultural impact of the mine. That final approval came on Jan. 15 of this year – just days before President Donald Trump left office.

Critics said the Trump administration rushed the final decision so it could approve the deal before President Joe Biden took office – and the Biden administration apparently agreed, announcing on March 1 that it was rescinding the environmental impact statement to have time for a “thorough review.”

But Besich said the proposal has already been studied and negotiated over for years, and that there’s no reason to delay it now.

“We need this mine to open with the full permitting in place as soon as possible,” she said in her written testimony. “And yes, we need it to be done in a way that preserves not only the economy of the region, but also respects the cultural and environmental sensitivity of the region and the tribes.”

Besich said Resolution Copper has already contributed to the community, agreeing to fund the town’s schools, help “recession-proof” Superior’s community services and fund the local chamber of commerce to help promote the city and its businesses. She also said the company has aided in “rebuilding Superior, where we have been working on housing redevelopment, and really making sure Superior is ready to support this monolithic mining operation.”

The long-term benefits are even greater, Besich said, with the mine providing an estimated 2,600 jobs in Pinal County and generating $60 billion for the state’s economy over the 60-year life of the operation.

But other witnesses pointed to the devastating effects the mine would have, both on the sacred land at Oak Flat and on the region’s environment.

“This represents a massive new water demand in a region already experiencing water shortage,” said James Wells, an environmental geologist who worked with the Forest Service on the original environmental impact statement for the mine. He said that even by the mining company’s estimates, the project would require 250 billion gallons of water over its life.

Opponents of the Resolution Copper Mine say it will damage land sacred to the San Carlos Apache, and a lawsuit challenging government approval of the project has drawn support from a wide array of religious groups. (Photo by Russ McSpadden/Courtesy Center for Biological Diversity)

As excavation of the mine progressed, it would also turn Oak Flat into a crater that opponents say would be 1,000-feet deep and up to two miles across. Sharp said that would mean the “destruction of an irreplaceable sacred site.”

She said the United States is obligated to protect Native American lands, and their freedom to exercise their religious rights, but that tribes have “been provided no avenues” to protect sites like Oak Flat.

“The proposed transfer of Oak Flat would set a dangerous precedent and violate international law and the federal trust responsibility, which the United States has charged itself with,” she said.

A court case challenging the government’s approval of the land swap has drawn support from a wide array of faith-based organizations, from the Sikh Coalition to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, looking to support religious rights claims of the Apache.

Republican lawmakers on the committee acknowledged the cultural and environmental impact of the mine. But they said that needs to be balanced against the nation’s growing need for copper, a critical element in many green-energy products, including solar panels and electric cars. The Resolution mine could ultimately produce up to one-quarter of the U.S. copper demand, according to company estimates.

But Sharp said there is no way to balance that need against religious rights. Wells said the benefits of this project will never balance against the harm it would cause.

“We need copper and other metals,” he said. “However, we do not need to green-light every mining project if the cultural and environmental costs are too high, as they are for this project.”

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Sarah Oven expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in political science. Oven, who has interned at the Cronkite Journal and The Arizona Republic, is working for Cronkite News in Washington this spring.

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