After more than 15 years of protest by tribal organisations, local communities, and environmental groups across the US from Arizona to Washington, DC, an extended battle over a valuable parcel of land in central Arizona entered a new phase. On Saturday, the Forest Service released the final environmental impact statement green-lighting a controversial mining project. This means the land can be transferred to Resolution Copper, the company behind the project, within 60 days.
The area known as Oak Flat is 97 kilometres east of Phoenix and within the federally managed Tonto National Forest. Known as Chi’chil Biłdagoteel in Apache, the landscape is considered sacred by the tribe. Resolution Copper, a joint venture by mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP, is seeking to use a process called block caving to extract the ore, which would cause an immense crater on the surface.
“These are holy places…we cannot destroy them,” Wendsler Nosie Sr. said in a press call on Jan. 14. The call was arranged to field the barrage of questions this week ahead of the Trump administration’s effort to trigger the long-foreshadowed transfer of land to the mining company. Nosie is a former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and the co-founder and spokesperson for Apache Stronghold, a non-profit dedicated to defending sacred sites.
Nosie has been part of what he called the “long, ugly fight” to protect the sacred land he said cannot be tampered with. Oak Flat is a place where religious and spiritual ceremonies have been conducted for centuries, and the oak groves are used by Apache people for collecting acorns and other traditional plants and foods. The area also contains a popular campground and recreation spot and is rich in biodiversity.
Apache Stronghold and other stakeholders have worked tirelessly for years to defend over 6,216 square kilometres of land from being traded to Resolution Copper. The project seeks to exploit a massive copper ore reserve hidden deep below land that is vital to numerous tribes in the region including the Apache and Yavapai.
The newly released impact statement says the mine will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in local, state, and federal taxes each year along with more than 1,400 jobs. But in addition to the supposed economic benefits, opponents like Randy Serraglio, the Southwest conservation advocate at the Centre for Biological Diversity, say the destruction to the environment and water supply in the area will be irreparable.
“When they’re done mining, Oak Flat will collapse into a crater that’s more than [300 metres] deep and [3.2 kilometres] wide,” Serraglio said of the block caving method that will be necessary to extract the ore 2,134 metres below the surface. He also added the water table will be both depleted and contaminated by mining waste, all in a landscape that faces increasing risk of a megadrought due to the climate crisis.
Mining companies have had their sights set on this piece of land since the 1990s when the valuable ore deposit was discovered. Various Arizona representatives tried to pass a land swap bill through US Congress starting in 2005. While a standalone bill failed numerous times, Senator John McCain tacked the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation rider onto the 2015 defence spending bill right before it was to be signed by US President Barack Obama. This rider allowed a swap of over 2,023 hectares of Resolution Copper’s land scattered around the state for the one big valuable parcel inside the Tonto National Forest.
It was only around two weeks ago that Nosie and others heard through a news report that the long-awaited final environmental impact statement was slated to be released on Jan. 15. With the statement released, the land can be swapped within 60 days.
According to Serraglio, the date for the release of this report was originally scheduled to be December 2021, but was moved up by a year which made him suspicious that “the fix is in” from the Trump administration and they want to speed up the process to get the land transferred before the end of the term. It follows a flurry of other moves by the administration tied to extraction, including an expanded oil and gas drilling lease spree in the Arctic.
“I’ve worked on a number of these projects over the years and when you have a big sprawling project like a massive copper mine, it’s extremely complex…it takes a long time to do the analysis,” he said, explaining why it doesn’t make sense how a report for a project of this magnitude would be done so far ahead of schedule unless it was rushed.
Resolution Copper released a statement on Friday that states the final environmental impact statement was not rushed but instead right on schedule. The company also mentions that it is “committed to careful and respectful treatment of any Native American artifacts or ancestral remains that may be found on the property.” In 2020, Rio Tinto, the managing interest in Resolution Copper, blasted through 46,000 year-old aboriginal dwellings in Western Australia during a mining project.
In an effort to prevent the release of the document and the land swap, Apache Stronghold filed a lawsuit in US District Court on January 12 looking to stop the transfer of land. In a press release, Apache Stronghold said the deal violates the “Apaches’ constitutional rights to religious freedom, due process, and petition and remedy, and is a breach of trust and fiduciary duties.” They also filed a restraining order to prevent the release of the document and a lien on the land with the Pinal County Recorder’s office. The lien on the land was filed because Apache Stronghold said the government is not permitted to swap it with a private company under an 1852 treaty with the Apache. While the restraining order was not granted on Thursday, the court has agreed to hear the case later this month.
The fight to save Oak Flat is far from over, but if the land transfer is initiated before Trump leaves office next week, Serraglio said it will be more difficult to overturn.
“This is just the last heinous thing this Trump administration is doing on its way out the door and it must be stopped,” he said. We’ll do everything in our power to stop it.”
Shaena is a freelance science journalist based in Phoenix, Arizona.