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USDA puts brakes on land transfer for Arizona copper mine

Arizona Copper Mine
Posted at 2:12 PM, Mar 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-02 20:42:37-05

FLAGSTAFF, AZ — A huge win for tribal communities and protectors of Oak Flat in the Tonto National Forest.

A decision by the US government Monday has paused the land exchange that would give the land to a giant mining company.

Resolution Copper is planning to build one of the nation's largest underground mines about an hour east of Phoenix. Oak Flat is sacred to many Apaches and would be destroyed by the mine.

The USDA announced it will withdraw the final environmental impact statement published in January. That report on the impacts of the mine started the clock on the land swap.

This means Resolution Copper will no longer get access to Oak Flat in a couple of weeks as was expected.

A few groups have filed federal lawsuits claiming the impact statement had been rushed and was inadequate.

In a statement, the USDA mentioned President Biden’s recent efforts to consult with tribes and strengthen nation-to-nation relationships.

"The recent Presidential Memorandum on tribal consultation and strengthening nation to nation relationships counsels in favor of ensuring the Forest Service has complied with the environmental, cultural, and archaeological analyses required. USDA has concluded that additional time is necessary to fully understand concerns raised by Tribes and the public and the project’s impacts to these important resources and ensure the agency’s compliance with federal law," the statement read.

Governor Doug Ducey released a statement saying this would cease the progress of the Resolution Copper project.

"I am extremely disappointed in the Administration’s decision to cease progress on Arizona’s Resolution Copper project, which is set to grow jobs and is estimated to create a direct and indirect economic impact of more than $1 billion to Arizona’s economy every year," Gov. Ducey said. “An effective and predictable regulatory environment is a critical factor in Arizona’s booming economy. In Arizona, we follow what works. Undoing lengthy, comprehensive, and already-completed federal environmental studies on a whim with the changing of federal administrations doesn’t work. This type of activity threatens an untold number of major projects in Arizona and around the country. I am calling on the USDA to reissue these crucial documents in a timely manner and continue progress on this job-creating project.”

Following the announcement, Randy Serraglio at the Center for Biological Diversity released the following statement:

“This is tremendous news for Oak Flat, tribal communities and everyone who loves this special place,” said Serraglio. “We’re grateful the Biden administration recognized that the fast-tracked environmental analysis was a sham and we know a thorough review will show a mine at Oak Flat will do irreparable damage. These sacred lands should never be handed over to a mining company and we won’t stop until they’re protected for good.”

Arizona Congressmen Raúl M. Grijalva, an outspoken critic of the mine, has led numerous lawmaker letters to the Trump and Biden administrations urging them to take the step announced Monday.

“This fight has never been about just one site – it’s been about ending the cycle of ignoring tribal input whenever it suits polluters,” Grijalva said today. “The Trump administration rushed this document out the door as just one more favor to industry, regardless of how legally or scientifically unsupportable it was. The Biden administration is doing the right thing with this reset, and I intend to reintroduce the Save Oak Flat Act in the coming days to make sure this needless controversy is settled on the side of justice once and for all.”

Superior Mayor Mila Besich weighed in on the USDA's decision Tuesday.

"We were shocked and quite dismayed to be honest, she said. "The outcome to this is that our future growth and economic diversification is tied to this land exchange legislation. We can't fully develop our airport or develop other business opportunities in our communities because this land exchange is held up."

Besich said they've been working with the government and Resolution Copper for more than a decade to get to this point.

"They made this decision based on the emotions of the opposition," said Besich.

Resolution Copper says the project has the potential to create about 3,700 direct and indirect jobs in Arizona, and it'd bring $61 billion dollars to the state over the estimated 60-year-life of the mine.

Besich said that's critical for the growth of Superior and other tons on the Copper Corridor.

"That job growth is going to come with other additional developments, so it's going to give us the opportunity to build more housing, to attract other entrepreneurs and of course we are developing and growing a new generation of miners in our community," said Besich.

Congress mandated the national forest land east of Phoenix to be turned over to Resolution Copper no more than 60 days after the publication of an environmental review.

The company issued the following statement Tuesday saying:

“Resolution Copper is evaluating the Forest Service’s decision to rescind the FEIS and Draft Record of Decision. In the meantime, we will continue to engage in the process determined by the US government and are committed to ongoing consultation with Native American Tribes and local communities.”

While rescinding the final environmental impact statement halts the land exchange, it's unclear how long the US Forest Service will take to look at the analysis.