A controversial bill to privatize national forest land in Arizona has been tucked into the national defense spending bill, to the dismay of those fighting a mining company's efforts to buy the land.
If approved, the legislation would open the door for a massive copper mine 100 miles north of Tucson. The company, Resolution Copper Mining, has been trying to acquire the land for nine years through a legislative land swap.
"They can't pass this bill in the light of day, so instead they're sneaking it in as a rider on an unrelated bill," Roger Featherstone, of Tucson-based Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, said on Wednesday. He has been fighting the land-swap legislation for nearly a decade.
The land exchange would allow Resolution Copper to trade 5,300 acres of land it already owns for 2,400 acres of Tonto National Forest land, sitting atop a large copper deposit near Superior. The land-swap bill is also opposed by environmentalists and the San Carlos Apache tribe, which considers the land in question to be sacred.
And last year the town of Superior—the site of the mining operation—revoked its official support for the mine. Town officials said the mine appears to benefit foreign mining companies more than the local residents.
Legislators were hoping to get the spending bill approved before the lame-duck congressional session wraps up next week. But the land swap and other bills to expand wilderness areas may prove to be sticking points for some senators, including Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, according to The Associated Press.
The House is expected to pass the bill today before it goes to the Senate, the AP says.
Dave Richins, a spokesman for Resolution Copper, referred all questions Wednesday to congressional sponsors of the land-swap bill. They were not available for comment Wednesday.
Critics say the land-swap bill would allow the mining project to avoid the level of scrutiny it would receive if the land remained public. An environmental study, a public-comment period, and time for objections to an environmental impact statement would all be required under the National Environmental Policy Act if the land remains public.
The embattled Rosemont Copper Mine, proposed south of Tucson, has been embroiled in the NEPA process for nearly seven years.
The most recent version of the land-swap bill appears to address this concern, which was also raised by the U.S. Forest Service last year. The bill now says the secretary of agriculture would have to prepare a final environmental impact statement, which would also require a public-comment period, before conveying title to the land to Resolution Copper.
But Featherstone said the change is only "incrementally better." He points out that the bill's language guarantees that, no later than 60 days after the environmental impact statement is published, the title will be transferred to the mining company. It does not make the transfer conditional on U.S. Forest Service approval.
Opponents have long accused the company of delays. In November 2013, Resolution Copper finally submitted a mine plan of operations to the U.S. Forest Service, which is needed before the NEPA process can begin. Tonto National Forest officials are reviewing the plan, said Carrie Templin, spokeswoman for the national forest.
Resolution Copper is jointly owned by two mining giants: U.K.-based Rio Tinto Group and BHP Billiton Ltd., based in Australia. Rio Tinto has been criticized for its ties to Iran, which owns a share in the company's uranium mine in Namibia.
A spokesman for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told The Huffington Post this week that Rio Tinto is complying with economic sanctions to prevent Iran from benefiting from its mine.
On Wednesday, the spokesman, Brian Rogers, did not reply to requests for comment from McCain, who supports the land swap.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., a vocal critic of the land-swap bill, also could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The parcel includes the Oak Flat Withdrawal Area, which is sacred to Native American tribes and frequently visited by birders, hikers and rock climbers. The San Carlos Apache tribe says its spiritual beings live within the Oak Flat, Gaan Canyon and Queen Creek area.
Resolution Copper has estimated that the crater created on Oak Flat, resulting from block-cave mining, would be 2 miles wide and 1,000 feet deep at its center.
The proposed method of mining there has also sparked criticism, even from mining proponents. Block-cave mining is cheaper and less labor-intensive than the cut-and-fill mining technique used historically in Superior. Block-cave is both more damaging for the environment and will result in fewer jobs for locals, opponents say.
They also worry about the impact on the local water supply and riparian habitat at Gaan Canyon and Queen Creek Canyon, which border the parcel Resolution Copper wants to privatize.
The town of Superior was economically devastated when its Magma Mine closed in the 1980s, said Steve Cooper, the town attorney.
But the proposal for a new mine has divided the town, he said.
Resolution Copper says its mine would create 1,400 direct jobs and generate $61 billion over the life of the mine—about 40 years—plus construction and cleanup time.
But opponents in Superior say they think the company is overstating the economic benefits and has failed to give the town assurances that its water supply and natural resources will be protected.
Superior's leaders are focusing on boosting tourism so residents won't be reliant solely on the boom-and-bust mining industry, Cooper said.
"We just want to make sure that we have a community where we can raise families, where we can take care of our retirees, and can make a transition from being 100 percent dependent on mining to having a diversified economy," Cooper said.
He said the town tried to get Resolution Copper to agree to a one-tenth of one percent mining tax, like the Magma Copper mine, but the company refused.