SUPERIOR, AZ - An Arizona mining company announced Friday it will suspend shaft and drilling work at its Superior operation and eliminate about 400 jobs, saying the moves are the result of continued uncertainty around a proposed land exchange.
Resolution Copper Mining officials said they will try to place affected workers in other jobs within the company. Some workers could be placed in positions with one of Resolution's owners, London-based Rio Tinto.
The cuts, which will start in December and conclude by the end of March, amount to about 75 percent of Resolution's workforce.
Under a proposal that has been pending since 2005, Resolution would swap 5,300 acres of land for conservation purposes for 2,400 acres of national forest land that company considers vital for its expansion plans.
The exchange has been stalled in Congress for years, opposed by some conservationists and American Indian groups.
"To justify further development, we need more certainty around legislative and regulatory activity affecting Resolution Copper," project director Andrew Taplin said in a statement. He said the land exchange "constitutes the critical path forward."
One of the largest undeveloped copper resources in the world rests under the forest land in question. Company plans call for investing more than $6 billion in the proposed mine, which would be the largest copper mine in North America.
Taplin said $1 billion has already been invested in the project and Resolution Copper is committed to seeing it through.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the area has already been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn and job creation there is desperately needed.
McCain said if Congress were to pass the legislation calling for the land swap, the mine expansion could result in 4,000 jobs.
U.S. Rep.-elect Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., said the cuts announced Friday could devastate Superior, Globe, Miami and other small communities.
"When a small community loses jobs, the hardship hits families, school districts, small businesses -- just about everyone," she said, adding that her office plans to work with civic and business leaders to determine the next steps.
Opponents of the swap include the Obama administration and many Democratic lawmakers. They have argued that an environmental review should be completed before the exchange is made.
During debate in the House last fall, Democrats complained that the mining company would not have to pay royalties to the U.S. government for lucrative mineral rights that could be worth billions of dollars. They also said the proposed mine site contains sacred Native American artifacts and important cultural areas that would be displaced by the mine.