Oak Flat Sacred Area Threatened
by Roger Featherstone; Director, Arizona Mining Reform Coalition
In the desert southwest we have been facing a boom in mine projects. The boom is supported by mining industry rhetoric that we can “mine our way out of the climate change crisis.” This new mining industry spin boils down to sacrificing wildlands, wildlife, communities, and special places to vast amounts of disruption and pollution, all on the altar of protecting us from climate change.
This spin resonates well in Washington, DC, and has led to further weakening of lax federal mining regulations. Several new bills have been introduced in the US Congress that would fast track mine proposals for minerals deemed as “critical,” and overturn a recent court victory for environmentalists. That legal decision, involving the proposed Rosemont mine in Arizona, found that in order for mining facilities to be permitted under regulations spawned by the 1872 Mining Law, a mining company must have a valid mining claim. Without valid mining claims, mines can still be permitted on public land, but different regulations (offering more options – including the right to say "no") must be used. The Mining Regulatory Clarity Act,1 introduced in the US Senate by Senators Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.) and Risch (R-Idaho), would overturn 151 years of history. If this bill were passed, anyone could stake a mining claim on public land, pay a modest annual fee, and be gifted the right to do anything “reasonably incident” to mining.
The Oak Flat Proposal
A prime example of this push to mine special places under the guise of “for the good of humanity” is the 19-year long struggle by Resolution Copper to mine at Oak Flat..
The site is an hour east of Phoenix, Arizona (on public land), and is a sacred recreational and ecological haven in the Tonto National Forest. Oak Flat is traditionally called Chich`il Bidagteel, and is sacred to Native Americans. It is listed as a Traditional Cultural Property by the US government. It is also a popular rock climbing and bouldering destination, with more that 2,500 published climbing problems. It rivals Joshua Tree National Park as a destination for the climbing community. And Oak Flat is desert riparian habitat. Only 10% of Arizona’s desert riparian habitat remains, and Oak Flat is home to the white-nosed coatimundi and the endangered Arizona Hedgehog cactus.
What makes Oak Flat special is that there are perennial pools and springs where water can always be found.
The proposed project would be a large underground block cave mine 7,000 feet deep. It would stretch across 47 miles, impact 16,000 acres, and create 1.6 billion tons of toxic waste. The mine would produce copper concentrate to be refined into finished copper overseas. (One of the reasons the proposed mine would export concentrate is that there is a severe bottleneck in smelting capacity in the US with only 3 working smelters.) Currently, Arizona exports 25% of its copper as concentrate.
A block cave mine is like an upside-down open pit mine. Resolution Copper would tunnel under the orebody (7,000 feet deep) to remove ore from below. As the ore is removed, the resulting void would cause the ground surface to subside creating a crater 2 miles wide and 1,000 feet deep. The ore would then be crushed and transported to a processing facility where it would be partially refined before being transported overseas for final refining. The remaining toxic waste would be pumped in a slurry through a massive pipeline more than 20 miles across rugged mountain terrain to a waste dump.
A diagram of a cave block mine. Photo: Arizona Mining Reform Coalition
Resolution Copper is owned by Rio Tinto (55%) and BHP (45%), the world’s largest mining companies. In 2004, rather than go through the traditional process for getting a permit, Resolution Copper induced the Arizona Congressional delegation to propose federal special interest legislation that would give Oak Flat to these two foreign mining companies. For 10 years citizens defeated 12 versions of this land giveaway until Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake placed a land exchange bill as a midnight rider onto the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (a must-pass bill). The new law mandated that the US Government give Oak Flat to Resolution Copper within 60 days from the publication date of a Final Environmental impact Statement (FEIS). The land exchange law sets several very troubling precedents. It would be the first time that the US Congress would give a Native American sacred site to foreign mining companies. Also, it would be the largest ever giveaway of rock climbing and recreational areas on public land. However, while the land exchange would give Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, it would not give the company any mining permits.
The US Forest Service published a Draft Environmental Impact Statement in 2019 and, under pressure from the Trump administration, released a final EIS on January 15, 2021. At the time the Forest Service acknowledged that several key steps needed to conclude the land exchange had not been completed. Three lawsuits were immediately filed, and in early March of 2021, the US Government rescinded the FEIS. This stopped the consummation of the land exchange. The judges in all three cases have ordered the federal government to give the plaintiffs notice at least 60 days before a new FEIS is released.
In June of 2022, a team of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) hydrology specialists released a technical review2 of the original FEIS and its supporting documents. The review was critical of the hydrology and water resources sections. Additional critical water studies have been prepared by the San Carlos Apache Tribe. It is not known how a new FEIS would respond to these critiques. The US Government has hinted that an edited version of the rescinded FEIS may be released late this spring or early summer. If this happens, the time clock for giving Oak Flat to Resolution Copper would begin again. But the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition and the San Carlos Apache Tribe lawsuits would also become active.
Proposed plan for the Resolution Copper Mine (47 mile from the load out facility to the tailings dump).
Credit: From the FEIS of the project layout
What's Wrong with the Resolution Copper Mine
The proposed mine has been opposed since it was first announced for three key reasons:
Water: With Arizona in the 23rd year of the worst drought in 1,200 years, and with restrictions on the use of water from Lake Mead, Arizona simply does not have water for both this destructive mine and for the communities and the environment. The mine would use as much water as a city of 180,000 people for at least 40 years. Because most of the water for the project would be pumped from a large well field, the aquifer would be drawn down and effect other users' wells. Because of the nature of the underground mine, water would need to be drained from the orebody to a depth of at least 7,000 ft below ground. This would drain all groundwater from under Oak Flat and would affect water supplies to nearby towns. Lastly, 1.6 billion tons of toxic waste would be slurried to an unlined tailings dump. The dump would cover 5,000 acres and would be contained by a 500 foot tailings dam constructed from the toxic tailings themselves. This unlined dump would be in the Gila River watershed and would undoubtably leak and pollute ground and surface water all the way to the Gila River.
Destruction of a sacred site: Oak Flat has been used for centuries by Native Americans, and is sacred to western Apache people. For this and many other reasons, all Arizona Tribes oppose the project, as do other Tribes and native communities throughout the United States. In May of 2021, Rio Tinto (the majority owner of Resolution Copper) knowingly blew up sacred rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge in western Australia that have been used for religious purposes for 46,000 years. Criticized for this wanton act, Rio Tinto’s CEO promised that Rio Tinto would "never again” destroy a sacred site anywhere in the world. Resolution Copper’s mining plan would violate that promise.
Failed experiment: Many mining experts tell us that the Resolution Copper mine proposal just will not work. Rio Tinto has not finished building the only similar mine (but 2,000 feet shallower) in Mongolia. The toxic tailings dump for that mine, which is the same design as proposed for Oak Flat, began to leak only 3 years after its completion. A test shaft dug at Oak Flat encountered a river of 185-degree hot water at 6,300 feet below ground. (Resolution Copper’s hydrologists had claimed that no water would be encountered below 4,500 feet.) This river of hot water has already led to an enormous increase in projected operating costs for treating this polluted water and cooling the shaft. No one has constructed a mine as large or as deep as the Resolution Copper proposal.
Time to Nix a Bad Idea
If Resolution Copper is sincere that this project is about combating climate change, there are plenty of existing and closed mines that could provide copper without destroying Oak Flat and other precious places.
For all the reasons mentioned above, it should be impossible for Resolution Copper to obtain the critical permits to mine at Oak Flat. Rio Tinto and BHP have both promised to adhere to the international standards for Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) from Native Americans and nearby residents. As both stakeholders have clearly said "NO", that should end the project.
Roger Featherstone is Director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition and an avid hiker and boater in the desert southwest.