Judge denies Native American bid to block Rio Tinto’s copper project

Arial footage of Oak Flat and nearby Ga’an Canyon (Credit: Apache Stronghold)

A US judge denied a request by Arizona’s San Carlos Apache tribe to block the Trump administration from publishing the final environmental study for the land swap needed by Rio Tinto to build the Resolution copper mine.

The US Forest Service published on Friday the environmental impact statement for the project, a joint venture owned by Rio (55%) and BHP (45%), starting a 60-day countdown for the government to swap land with Rio.

The mine is estimated to produce as much as 40 billion pounds of copper over 40 years and could supply a quarter of US copper demand

The agency also published a draft record of decision indicating it will issue, pending review, permits for use of power lines, pipelines and roads in the area.

Resolution is one of the largest undeveloped copper deposits in the world and has an average grade of roughly 1.5% copper. Ore production from the operations could reach approximately 120,000 tonnes per day, according to Rio’s Resolution Copper subsidiary.

The mine is estimated to produce as much as 40 billion pounds of copper over 40 years and could supply a quarter of US copper demand.

The non-profit community organization Apache Stronghold filed the lawsuit Tuesday in US District Court in Phoenix challenging the land
transfer on the grounds that the giveaway violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Apaches’ constitutional rights to religious freedom.

The judge said that the release of the final environmental study does not necessarily mean the land swap will go through, although the US Congress had mandated just that in 2014. The judge has set a series of hearings on the matter over the next two weeks.

Lawyers for tribal members say they are looking forward to the hearings and hope the judge will invalidate the environmental study or rule the 2014 act by Congress unconstitutional.

As an added defense, tribal members on Thursday filed a property lien on the land, effectively saying the government does not own the land and thus cannot give it away.

Rio Tinto said in a statement following the study publication that it will continue to engage with Native American tribes and seek consent before any decision on the development of the project.

“We will comply with all laws related to Native American cultural heritage and will strive to do more,” said Resolution project manager Andrew Lye in a December 23 letter seen by Bloomberg.

Also in December, Rio Tinto named Chief Financial Officer Jakob Stausholm as CEO after Jean-Sébastien Jacques resigned under pressure from investors over the company’s destruction of a 46,000-year-old sacred Indigenous site in Australia.

BHP Group said it recognizes the Oak Flat land “has historical cultural significance for Native American tribes” and plans to monitor Resolution’s tribal negotiations.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, praised the decision, saying the state “can have a robust mining sector while protecting our environment and cultural history.”

“I’ll defend this land to the very end,” said Wendsler Nosie, the former chairman of Arizona’s San Carlos Apache tribe who has formed a protest camp at the mine site.

“It’s silly for anyone to think” the companies could offer anything to gain tribal consent.

(With files from Reuters and Bloomberg)

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