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Know the West

How a huge Arizona mining deal was passed — and could be revoked

Pushed through Congress, the Resolution Copper deal could damage sacred Apache sites.


No one would accuse John McCain of being a “happy warrior.” But even by his standards, the senior senator from Arizona seemed unusually testy when he sat down before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on a chilly February morning in 2012.

“If we show a little frustration,” he began in a clipped voice, “I think it would may be understandable, because we have been at this issue for some time.”

For seven years, in fact, McCain had been trying to pass some version of the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act, which would swap 2,422 acres of the Tonto National Forest to the Resolution Copper mining company in exchange for a patchwork of privately owned conservation lands. But despite his best efforts, McCain’s 2012 attempt failed, too.

Fast-forward three years. In December 2014, McCain tried a different tactic: During back-room negotiations, he buried the deal deep inside a 1,600-page, $500 billion “must pass” bill funding the United States military. The bill was then introduced under a special agreement that prohibited amendments. It passed with the land swap included.

Now it’s the mine proposal’s opponents’ turn to be frustrated. Even as McCain and company spent years pushing for the swap, the project’s critics grew in number and importance –– people like Roy Chavez, a third-generation miner and former mayor of Superior, the town closest to the planned mega-project; the nearby San Carlos Apache Tribe; and the secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior. They say the mine not only threatens a swath of sacred Indian land in the craggy mountains an hour’s drive east of Phoenix, it sets a precedent that could be used to nibble away at public lands throughout the West. McCain’s tactics have left them fighting an uphill battle to, if not kill the mine, at least ensure that its impacts are mitigated. But they’re not giving up.

“When we heard what McCain had done,” says Chavez, “we went into fifth gear.”


Sen. John McCain in the #10 shaft, the deepest mine shaft in the U.S. at 6,943 feet, which Resolution Copper dug on private land.
Courtesy Resolution Copper

Discovered in 1995, the copper deposit in question is the largest untapped body of the essential metal in North America, capable of producing an estimated 550,000 tons — as heavy as five Nimitz Class aircraft carriers — annually for decades. The ore body lies more than a mile under the earth, near the northwest corner of the state’s “copper triangle,” a region scattered with both active and abandoned mines, most of them vast, open-pit scars.

The land directly atop the ore body is known as Oak Flat. Strewn with giant boulders that draw rock climbers from across the country, the Flat and its plentiful oak trees spread across a low, rugged plateau, punctuated by shallow, verdant canyons. Back in 1955, when Superior was still a bustling mining town, the Eisenhower administration declared Oak Flat off limits to mining, thus preserving, in perpetuity, one little piece of the ravaged copper triangle. That meant that the company couldn’t simply “claim” the land, as miners had been doing on federal land for more than a century.

So, Resolution bought up some 5,300 acres of land, most of it along the San Pedro River, to swap for approximately 2,400 acres of national forest land at Oak Flat, a deal that even some environmental groups reluctantly supported. The bill was first floated in Congress in 2005 by Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., who was promptly mired in a scandal involving — and thereby killing — the swap bill. It would take almost a decade more, and a lot of politicking, to get a bill passed, however sneakily it was done.

According to a study commissioned by Resolution, a subsidiary of the global mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, when the mine is up and running it will create 3,700 well-paying jobs in an economically depressed region of the state, pump $64 billion into the state’s economy, add $20 billion in tax revenues and bolster America’s natural resource independence.

Given Superior’s high unemployment rate and long history of mining, one might expect universal local support for such a deal. And, in fact, many in Superior welcome the new mine. Other locals, however, including some who once worked underground, are adamantly opposed. Former Mayor Chavez has spent a good deal of energy and time since the old mines closed trying to build a new economy for Superior, one based on tourism, amenities and the like, and he worries that an enormous mine would scuttle those plans. Besides, he predicts that the nature of modern mining means that few locals will be hired. “Without a college degree,” Chavez says, “you don’t stand a chance.”

Resolution spokeswoman Jennifer Russo has admitted that Chavez is probably right: The method that will be used requires robotics, not human labor. Other opponents claim the mine’s economic benefits have been grossly inflated, with most of the tax revenues flowing out of the region and the state. Meanwhile, they point out, local residents will be stuck with the bills for the new roads, schools and the other infrastructure that giant projects like this inevitably require.

Historically, Superior’s mines used a technique called cut-and-fill. Resolution, however, plans to extract the ore by blasting it from below in a technique called block caving. It’s not as visible as open-pit mining — the primary copper-mining method used in Arizona — since the miners tunnel underground. Yet once the ore is removed, the earth above it sinks. That will plunge thousands of acres of this biologically diverse landscape into a crater nearly 1,000 feet deep and a mile across. An additional mile around the crater could remain dangerously unstable and off-limits to the public for generations.

Archaeologist Tom Wright hikes through what would be the center of the future Rio Tinto mine at Oak Flat Campground in the Tonto National Forest.
Deanna Dent/Reuters

According to Scott Wood, who spent 40 years as the Tonto National Forest archaeologist, Oak Flat contains hundreds of ancient sites, including “the single largest Apache archaeological site currently known.” Beyond Oak Flat, says Wood, waste from the mine — expected to create a pile 50 stories high on a footprint four times the size of Central Park — would bury countless other archaeological sites, some of them several thousand years old.

Terry Rambler, chairman of the nearby San Carlos Apache Tribe, testified against the mine before a Senate committee in 2013, and asked: “Would (you) have this same position if an ore body were to be located beneath (your) church … and a company wanted to bulldoze or destroy it?”

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, an environmental impact statement is required prior to the swap. Any concerns will be addressed during the analysis, says Vicky Peacey, who oversees permitting for Resolution.

But Vermont Law School professor Patrick Parenteau says that stipulations in McCain’s bill create a “bastardized version” of NEPA safeguards. He points to the fact that under the new law, the land swap must be carried out within 60 days after the EIS is completed — in effect, green-lighting the project as it’s submitted. “There is no way judicial review could take place in time to prevent it,” says Parenteau. This end-run around NEPA is the primary reason Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Interior’s Sally Jewell oppose the deal. The EIS process has not yet begun, and will take years to complete, according to a Forest Service spokesperson.

Last June, Congressman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., introduced a bill that opponents see as the last, best shot at stopping the mine. HR 2811, titled “Save Oak Flat,” would repeal the land exchange, forcing Resolution to negotiate a new swap –- this time with full NEPA protections. That would almost certainly require using a less destructive mining technique, like cut-and-fill, in which mine waste is returned to previously excavated areas, thus avoiding subsidence of surface land.

But because Oak Flat’s copper is low-grade ore, Resolution insists that block cave mining is the only economically feasible technique. “That’s the method that’s been selected based on what God put there,” Peacey says.

If the EIS prohibits block caving, Resolution could still mine the deposit using traditional methods, though it would be less profitable, says Roger Featherstone, director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, a group opposed to Resolution’s current plan. And some say that the company may be too deeply invested to just walk away, given that it has already sunk a billion dollars into drilling the deepest mine shaft of its kind in the United States, on private land.

But Featherstone believes Resolution might do just that if Grijalva’s bill passes. “That’s a lot of money to you and me, but not to them. Their corporate culture is all about maximizing profits.” If Resolution doesn’t get what it wants, it could simply take a billion-dollar tax loss, says Featherstone. “It’s just not that big of a deal to them.”