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Oak Flat. Photo Credit: EcoFlight

Resolution Copper Mine – Privatization of public lands

Resolution Copper Mine

Public land sacred to the San Carlos Apache Tribe will be transformed into a polluted, 1000-foot-deep crater if Resolution Copper Mining succeeds in its plan to develop one of the largest copper mines in the United States. Land for the mine, located in the Tonto National Forest of Arizona, was protected from mining by President Eisenhower in 1955—but no longer, thanks to a controversial land exchange Congress legislated in 2014.

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Resolution Copper Mine Location

Resolution Copper Mine

A controversial land exchange would develop one of the nation’s largest copper mines on public land sacred to the San Carlos Apache Tribe. 

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Photo: U.S. Forest Service

Resolution Copper Mine – The Details

Resolution Copper Mining, a subsidiary of multinational mining conglomerates Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, is planning to develop one of the nation’s largest copper mines in central Arizona. The mine’s footprint would include Oak Flat, a part of the Tonto National Forest that has been protected from mining by a public land order from President Eisenhower in 1955. Oak Flat is sacred, ancestral land of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, who have been fighting against the mine for more than a decade. Overall, the mine would cover approximately 7,000 acres of surface area and extend more than a mile below the surface.

Resolution’s plan is dependent on a land exchange authorized by Congress in 2014. After failing as a standalone bill for nine years despite Resolution’s extensive lobbying, the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act was tacked on as a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act, legislation that Congress must pass every year to fund the Defense Department. Under the terms of the exchange, Resolution will receive 2,422 acres of Tonto National Forest, including Oak Flat, in exchange for 5,344 acres of land elsewhere in Arizona. The privatization of Oak Flat would significantly increase the size of the mine, and thereby increase its financial viability. It would also reduce federal oversight, as the privately owned land would be primarily subject to Arizona law, rather than the federal laws that would apply with continued public ownership.

Resolution Copper plans to utilize block caving, a mining process that has been called upside down, or inverted, open pit mining. The method involves undercutting the orebody (the portion of the earth containing the copper) to make it collapse in a series of chambers, or block caves. The collapse breaks up the ore, which is then transported to the surface for processing. The collapse is not limited to the orebody—the surface ultimately subsides. In this case, the Resolution Copper mine is expected to leave a crater more than a mile wide and 1,000 feet deep. The block cave process also uses—and pollutes—vast quantities of water. The Resolution mine, in the arid Arizona landscape, will require 6.5 billion gallons of water per year.

The Resolution Copper mine does not have final approval. The Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act requires the Forest Service to evaluate the environmental impacts of the land exchange and the mine’s planned operations before the land trade can be completed and mining starts. Though the Act does not permit the Forest Service to reject the land exchange, it does not change the agency’s discretion to reject the mining plan. The Forest Service’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement was issued on August 10, 2019, initiating a 90-day public comment period. The Forest Service is currently evaluating comments on the DEIS and expects to issue a Final EIS and Draft Record of Decision in the fall of 2020.

Meanwhile, the San Carlos Apache Tribe is leading the fight to stop the mine through repeal of the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act. Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have taken up the fight, each sponsoring the Save Oak Flat Act in his chamber of Congress.

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