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The world’s two biggest mining companies want to mine sacred lands, a public campground, and a popular rock climbing destination.

A subsidiary of Rio Tinto and BHPBilliton (the two biggest metal mining companies in the world, by annual revenue and market capitalization) is proposing to mine copper ore deep underneath Oak Flat, near the town of Superior, an hour east of Phoenix. The copper deposit lies partially underneath the Oak Flat Campground, a unique and sacred place that was protected in the 1950’s from mining by executive order. But now, due to an act of Congress, Oak Flat and much of its surroundings face privatization – the handover of previously protected public land to an international mining company.

Unfortunately, the stage was set for the land transfer in late 2014. Despite a dozen failed attempts by pro-mining members of Congress over the last decade to get the Oak Flat land exchange bill passed on its own merit, the final legislation was ultimately tucked hundreds of pages into the National Defense Authorization Act – a must-pass piece of legislation that funds our armed services. This sneaky tactic resulted in Oak Flat being put up for sale despite Congress voting down the bill so many times before. Clearly, the transfer of Oak Flat to the mining industry is not the will of Congress, but rather the will of a few pro-mining lawmakers who exploited the legislative process and turned a public and Native American treasure into a corporate commodity.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to stop the project because the land hasn’t been transferred yet. While the legislation authorized the land transfer, the actual transfer cannot be completed until a federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is completed – a process that will take several years.

In the fall of 2019, Earthworks and allied groups worked together to produce hundreds of pages of technical comments on the draft EIS, pointing out the major flaws of federal analysis, as well as what wasn’t analyzed at all but should have been.  Earthworks also prepared comments regarding other methods of mine engineering that would protect the surface of Oak Flat but were dismissed by the US Forest Service.  We expect a final EIS sometime in 2020 and are prepared to litigate if necessary.

We are also hoping that Congress will repeal the land transfer through the Save Oak Flat Act championed by Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva.

Climber ascends a spire in Lower Devil’s Canyon, near Oak Flat, Arizona. Access to this area could be severed if the Resolution Copper Mine is built, and the pumping of vast amounts of groundwater is likely to impact it as well. Photo: Justin Kenderes.
Climber ascends a spire in Lower Devil’s Canyon, near Oak Flat, Arizona.
Access to this area could be severed if the Resolution Copper Mine is built,
and the pumping of vast amounts of groundwater is likely to impact it as well.
Photo: Justin Kenderes.

A place worth protecting

The proposed mining area is not only prized by birders, campers, climbers and hikers, the tribes in the area consider it sacred. The San Carlos Apache tribe is actively opposed to the land exchange and potential mine because of the destructive impacts it would have on the surrounding ecosystem and traditional uses. Indeed, since time immemorial, the site has been used as a ceremonial and burial site. The Tribe has congregated in the shade of the oak trees for generations too numerous to count. In a January 2015 article from the Indian Country Today Media Network, San Carlos Apache Chairman Terry Rambler told tribal communities far and wide that:

“We have a dream that one day our children and their children to follow may freely practice the religious ceremonies that come from our Creator. We must stand together and fight those, like Resolution Copper, that seek to take our religious freedom, our most human right,” he says in his letter. “If we do not, our beliefs, our spiritual lives, the very foundation of our language, our culture and our belief will no longer be in balance, and we will become undone. If we do not, the taking of one people’s human right threatens all human and religious rights.

We’re not giving up on our sacred land. A law can be passed but a law can also be repealed or revised or amended. What was a struggle to protect our most sacred site is now a battle.”

In addition to Oak Flat being a scenic campground offering visitors shade trees for relaxing and open space for hiking and wildlife viewing, the area is also a popular rock climbing destination. For years, Oak Flat was the site of the phoenix bouldering competition and competitions continue to occur there. Hundreds of roped climbs offer regional climbers a wonderful experience of primitive camping and climbing. If mined as currently proposed, the project would constitute the single largest loss of rock climbing on public lands in US history.

Why would an underground mine have surface impacts?

While underground mining generally has a much smaller surface footprint than open-pit mines, Resolution Copper proposed to utilize a technique called panel caving. Resolution is proposing to employ this technique about 7,000 feet underground. Typical underground mining uses tunnels and shafts, often filling them back in after mining with waste material – a method of mining ore without compromising the surface directly, and leaving it potentially open to existing uses both during and after mining. But the in the case of panel caving, massive open voids are created. The material is channeled downwards into a rock funnel like sand moving through a huge hourglass, where it then is brought to the surface using elevators. What’s left behind are a series of huge voids that cannot be backfilled, and grow larger and larger as mining continues. Eventually, the voids become so large that the earth above it collapses, forming a crater. Geologists and mine engineers refer to this as subsidence. Anything on the surface, like sacred sites, campgrounds, and rock climbing cliffs, are likely to collapse into the crater and be destroyed forever. Privatizing the area means the mining company will likely sever public access over most of a 2,400 acre area as soon as mining begins, and a future crater will be too unstable to allow for access at a later date.

In the case of Resolution Copper, a change of mine plans could mean the deposit could be mined without causing surface damage, but the company has shown no interest in discussing the options – probably because it could also mean a less profitable mine. Either way, we believe any mining company willing to cause this much damage to tribes, recreationalists, water resources (the mine would use tremendous amounts of water in a desert already dealing with serious drought), and wildlife should simply not be built. Until Resolution Copper shows a commitment to preserve the surface, we and other conservation groups will continue to fight this destructive proposal.

The San Carlos Apache Tribe, White Mountain Apache Tribe, Fort McDowell Yavapai Tribe, Jicarilla Apache Tribe, InterTribal Council of Arizona and the National Congress of American Indians have all passed resolutions opposing the land exchange. Conservations organizations ranging from the Sierra Club to the Arizona Audubon Society have also expressed serious concerns. In addition, Concerned Citizens and Retired Miners Association has formed to oppose the land exchange, while climbing organizations The Access Fund and Concerned Climbers of Arizona are also engaged to stop this misguided proposal before it’s too late.

Take action

Tell Congress to pass the Save Oak Flat Act and protect sacred Apache land!


Oak Flat and Rio Tinto: The Law, the Lies, and the Queen Valley Confrontation by Ezekiel Kelly

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