As expected, the U.S. Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act on Dec. 12 and with it, the land swap giving 971 ha (2,400 acres) near Superior, AZ to Resolution Copper Mining.
The land swap with the federal government was first proposed nearly 10 years ago as a way to develop a large copper deposit 2,130 m (7,000 ft) deep using block-cave mining. The mine could generate $61 billion during the life of mine and create 3,700 direct and indirect jobs, the Arizona Daily Star reported.
U.S Sen. John McCain (R, AZ) was instrumental in getting the land swap attached to the must-pass defense bill.
"To maintain the strength of the most technologically-advanced military in the world, America’s armed forces need stable supplies of copper for their equipment, ammunition, and electronics," he said. “Most importantly, Resolution Copper represents a game-changer for an area of Arizona facing grave economic challenges."
More than a dozens versions of the land swap bill that was first introduced in 2005 have since failed. Opponents of the mine, including Native American Tribes, conservations and a some former miners in the area argued that this land swap version only passed because it was attached the important defense legislation.
"I’m outraged," said Wendsler Nosie, former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. The tribe considers Oak Flat, the site to be mined, and nearby canyons to be among its sacred places. "Here McCain and other leaders preach about democracy, human rights, freedom of religion. They preach this to the whole world and yet they attach (the land-swap) to this bill. Where is their conscience?"
The block-cave mining has also raised complaints as Resolution has estimated it will result in a 3.2 km (2-mile) wide and 304 m (1,000-ft) deep crater on the surface of Oak Flat.
Oak Flat includes the 283-ha (760-acre) Oak Flat Withdrawal Area, deemed off-limits to future mining by a 1955 land order signed by President Dwight Eisenhower. The bill overturns that order.
Resolution, jointly owned by U.K-based Rio Tinto Group and Australia-based BHP Billiton Ltd., said it plans to work with Native American tribes, and will try to hire locally and regionally whenever possible.
"Once the legislation is signed into law by President Obama, Resolution Copper will focus on the comprehensive environmental and regulatory review under (the National Environmental Policy Act), where there will be broad public consultation, government-to-government consultation with Arizona Native American tribes and a comprehensive valuation appraisal of the copper deposit as required by Congress," project director Andrew Taplin said.
Supporters touted compromises made in the latest version of the bill, but opponents say those concessions don't go nearly far enough.
The latest version of the bill says Resolution Copper must conduct environmental studies before it can get title to the land parcel in Superior. But the bill still guarantees that the mining company ultimately gets the title to the land — regardless of the results of those studies, the Arizona Daily Star reported.
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.