Resolution Copper’s plan to mine up to 1.4 billion tons of copper ore from underneath the Oak Flat area just east of the Town of Superior was put on hold in March after the federal government issued a final environmental impact statement about the project, then rescinded it six weeks later.
When issued Jan. 15 during the last week of the Trump administration, the environmental impact statement triggered a 60-day objection period leading up to a mid-March land exchange giving Resolution Copper possession of land it has sought to mine for decades in the Tonto National Forest.
On March 1, after President Joe Biden had taken office and issued a memorandum instructing all federal agencies to strengthen consultation and relationships with tribal nations, Tonto officials said they had been ordered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to withdraw the environmental impact statement for a consultation period it estimated could last “several months.”
“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 said. The Forest Service is part of the USDA.
The agency also said its authority to protect Oak Flat is limited because the land exchange was approved by Congress as part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, and it would likely take another act of Congress to reverse it.
Resolution Copper, a joint venture of mining corporations Rio Tinto and BHP, seeks ownership of 2,400 acres owned by the U.S. Forest Service. In return the company would give the agency 5,376 acres in private land between eight locations in Arizona, including 140 acres at Apache Leap near the site of the mine.
One of the world’s largest untapped copper reserves is 7,000 feet below Oak Flat, also known as Chi’chil Bildagoteel. The area is considered sacred by the San Carlos Apache and other Arizona tribes as the home of their gods and site of many religious ceremonies.
The mining activity was expected to eventually create a crater up to 2 miles wide, destroying stands of oak trees where tribal members obtain medicinal and ceremonial plants and which provide shade for a popular Forest Service campground. At least three lawsuits have been filed by tribal and environmental groups against the proposal.
According to the environmental impact statement, Resolution Copper could produce up to 40 billion pounds of copper over the 56-year life of its mine, creating an estimated 1,600 Pinal County jobs during construction and 2,100 jobs during peak operations. The study projected an annual statewide average economic impact of $1.2 billion.
Resolution Copper’s plan is to mine and crush the ore underneath the extraction site east of Superior, then transplant it by a 2.5-mile pipeline to the former Magma Mine processing and smelter facilities just west of the Town, which has a population of about 3,200. The mine’s tailings would be sent to embankments in the Skunk Camp area 14 miles south of Superior.
Following the USDA, Mayor Mila Besich said, “We are dismayed by this decision, we look forward to consulting with USDA to assure them that mining can be conducted here, safely and with sound environmental practices.
“Superior is resilient and we look forward to working through this challenge while continuing to diversify our local economy.”
The Superior Town Council approved a Community Mitigation Improvement Agreement with Resolution Copper just before the environmental impact statement was released. Mayor Mila Besich said the most important aspects of the agreement include replacement of recreation sites, mitigation for socioeconomic impacts, compensation for water use and effects to local aquifers, and location of the tailings away from the community rather than just west of it, as in some proposed alternatives.
“We have also determined that additional research and data collection is needed to determine how much surface water flows need to be returned to Queen Creek and how impacts to water will be managed through the duration of the project,” she said.
Luke Goodrich, an attorney for nonprofit opposition group Apache Stronghold, said the group remains wary of federal officials: “The government knows the destruction of Oak Flat violates federal law. It knows it can’t justify it in court. So it is retreating — temporarily. But a temporary retreat doesn’t solve the problem. The government is still planning on transfer and destruction of Oak Flat.”
U.S. Arizona District Judge Steven Logan had ruled against Apache Stronghold in its lawsuit seeking to halt the land exchange, after which the group filed an emergency appeal.