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Ray Mine Expansion – Privatization of public lands

Ray Mine Expansion

ASARCO LLC’s Ray Mine in Pinal County, Arizona, has an alarming track record of environmental damage: it once spilled 20 tons of sulfuric acid onto the central Arizona landscape, and the water quality in the stream receiving its waste is so poor that the Department of Environmental Quality recommends humans stay out of it. That doesn’t bother ASARCO, which wants to expand the mine—or the Bureau of Land Management, which is pursuing a land trade to make it happen.

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Ray Mine Expansion Location

Ray Mine Expansion

The owner of the Ray Mine has an abominable track record of environmental damage, but the Bureau of Land Management is nevertheless proposing a land trade with it.

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Ray Mine Expansion – The Details

The Ray Mine’s history of environmental damage includes disfiguring the central Arizona landscape and spilling PCBs and 20 tons of sulfuric acid. Monitoring wells near the mine have recorded elevated levels of metals, total dissolved solids, sulfates, and nitrates in groundwater. Mineral Creek, a 17-mile stream that receives the mine’s wastewater, suffers from elevated levels of copper, zinc, turbidity and pH. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has determined that Mineral Creek is too polluted for swimming and bathing, livestock watering, and wildlife.

For decades, Ray Mine’s owner, ASARCO LLC, has sought to expand the mine and extend its life. In 2000, the multinational corporation reached an agreement with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to acquire approximately 8,200 acres of public lands and 2,800 acres of federally owned minerals via a land exchange (in return, BLM would receive about 7,300 acres of ASARCO land elsewhere in Arizona.) Owning the land used for the mine expansion would allow ASARCO to operate primarily under Arizona’s environmental and mining laws rather than stricter federal law. A lighter regulatory regime would enable ASARCO to invest less capital in environmental safeguards and remediation, resulting in greater profits and more environmental damage.

While common sense dictates that a lighter regulatory regime will result in greater environmental impacts, BLM, tasked with analyzing the land trade’s impacts, reached a different conclusion. It concluded that ASARCO would operate the Ray Mine the same way regardless of whether BLM made the trade or not. Conservationists challenged BLM’s illogical determination and a federal appeals court ultimately agreed, stopping the land trade in 2010 and chastising the agency for ignoring the additional environmental impacts that could be expected.

Now—more than 20 years after it was first proposed—BLM has once again done ASARCO’s bidding and re-committed to the Ray Mine trade.  In October, 2019, BLM issued its decision to proceed with the Ray Land Exchange with ASARCO. Opponents of the exchange have 45 days to file an administrative protest. Litigation, if necessary would not begin until all protests are resolved by Interior.

Astonishingly, BLM has once again concluded ASARCO would operate its mine the same way whether or not the land trade took place. The agency ignored the 2010 court decision and neglected to alter its analysis in any substantial way. Conservationists are digging in, ready to once again take BLM to court if the Department of the Interior denies the protests.

ASARCO’s persistent interest in this land exchange is unsurprising. Mining companies often pursue land exchanges as the preferred means of expanding operations. Operating on private land, rather than public, minimizes federal oversight. In addition to state law being more lenient than federal law, state regulators are generally thought to be more responsive to the requests and concerns of mining companies than their federal counterparts.

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