A U.S. Senate decision is imminent on legislation that would ease the way for a massive copper mine 100 miles north of Tucson.
The Senate could vote Wednesday or Thursday on the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a bill to give 2,400 acres of national forest land near Superior to a foreign mining company.
Opponents are outraged that legislators inserted the hotly contested land swap into a must-pass piece of legislation at the 11th hour.
"They're trying to sneak it through," said Superior Town Councilman Gilbert Aguilar, a former miner. "That's pretty desperate to me."
The land-swap legislation has repeatedly failed to pass both houses of Congress since it was first introduced in 2005. It was inserted into the defense spending bill at the behest of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.—who has been pushing for the land swap since 2005—as well as House supporters Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., and Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz.
"This is not unusual," Gosar said in a phone interview. The bill is not completely unrelated to the defense bill, he said, because "critical mineral access" is in the best interest of the military.
McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said in a Monday email, "Sen. McCain will be extremely proud if the Resolution Copper land exchange is enacted into law. There is clearly a strategic national interest in increasing America's domestic production of copper."
Mining company Resolution Copper, jointly owned by U.K.-based Rio Tinto Group and Australia-based BHP Billiton Ltd., wants access to a massive copper deposit 7,000 feet beneath the land parcel, just east of Superior. The mine would generate enough copper to meet 25 percent of U.S. demand.
The bill easily passed the House last week but may face roadblocks in the Senate.
Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, are opposed to the package of public-lands bills added to the defense act, including the land-swap bill and provisions to expand wilderness areas and streamline oil and gas permits, The Associated Press reported.
Coburn said in a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that he would "utilize all procedural options at my disposal as a United States senator" to block the quick passage of the bill.
He objected to the tactic of adding unrelated legislation to a bill, saying the process "will preclude any amendments or substantive debate."
A Town Divided
The town of Superior is on the verge of bankruptcy and has been economically devastated since its Magma Mine closed in the 1980s. Many residents say the town is in desperate need of the jobs a new mine could provide. The mine would generate $61 billion over its lifetime and bring 1,400 direct jobs to the area.
"It would be a godsend if this bill passes," said Nancy Vogler, a Superior resident of eight years.
"We've got so many hands out (asking) for everything from diapers to food for children," she said. "You just can't donate enough stuff to keep the families together."
But the town of Superior rescinded its written support for the mine project last February. Town Council members felt they couldn't get assurances from Resolution to guarantee the town benefits from the mine and that local resources, including the water supply, would be protected.
Resolution Copper won't commit to contributing a one-tenth of 1 percent mining tax to the town, said Town Attorney Steve Cooper.
Resolution Copper spokesman Dave Richins said Monday that he could not comment on ongoing negotiations with the town. He said he won't comment on the land swap until after the Senate makes it decision.
Some Superior residents say the town would ultimately be hurt by the destruction of the natural beauty and popular hiking, birding, canyoneering and rock-climbing areas around the mine site. Town leaders are trying to diversify Superior's economy with ecotourism and other industries, so Superior isn't solely reliant on the boom-and-bust mining industry, town leaders say.
Superior is a mining town at heart, said Aguilar, the council member, and he doesn't want to fight Resolution Copper.
"We want the mine here. All we're trying to do is make sure Superior is OK for the long haul. We want to make sure our grandkids are going to be OK," Aguilar said. "My loyalty is to Superior, not to the mine."
Supporters say the bill now contains compromises enough. While the latest to ensure the mining company can't avoid crucial environmental studies if the land-swap bill passes.
But critics say those compromises don't go far version of the bill requires Resolution Copper to conduct environmental studies before it can get title to the land, the bill still guarantees that the mining company ultimately gets the title to the land—regardless of what those studies reveal.
If the land remained public, the mining project would be dependent on U.S. Forest Service approval and would have to complete the entire process required by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.
Opponents say the title transfer should be predicated on approval from the Forest Service and the secretary of agriculture, who conduct the NEPA process.
"The only reason to go through the NEPA process is to provide information to the decision-makers," said Roger Featherstone of the Tucson-based Arizona Mining Reform Coalition. "In every version of the bill, no matter how NEPA was truncated, there was never any opportunity for the secretary of agriculture to say 'no.' If you remove any decision-making power, then NEPA ends up being an exercise in futility."
The San Carlos Apache Tribe considers Oak Flat, at the mining site, to be among its sacred places. Resolution Copper projects the crater at Oak Flat resulting from block-cave mining will be 1,000 feet deep at its center and 2 miles wide.
McCain spokesman Rogers pointed to assurances in the bill that Native American tribes will have access to the Oak Flat campground until the area is deemed unsafe. The bill also designates the nearby cliffs at Apache Leap -- from which Apache warriors are said to have jumped rather than be taken prisoner by U.S. troops -- as under the protection of the Forest Service. It "ensures the cliffs cannot be damaged by the mine," he said.
Opponents say Resolution Copper can't guarantee the land collapse from mining won't affect the steep cliffs that tower over the town of Superior.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said the current version of the bill removes a requirement that the mining company consult with tribe members about the mining project.
"That is profoundly disappointing," she told the news media last weekend. "It is really important that when there are perhaps significant unintended consequences, as is the case here with the tribe, that we use all the tools in our toolbox to make sure that their voice is heard and that it influences the future course of that project."