Arizona mining struggle pits economy, electric vehicles against conservation and culture By Reuters

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© Reuters. Arizona copper fight reflects tough choices as America tries to go green

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By Ernest Scheyder

SUPERIOR, Ariz. (Reuters) – Early last year, Darrin Lewis paid $ 800,000 for a hardware store in a small town in Arizona where mining giant Rio Tinto (NYSE 🙂 Plc hopes to build one of the largest underground mines in the world.

Rio purchases materials from Lewis’s Superior Hardware & Lumber for its Resolution mine site, which accounts for a third of the store’s sales and helps keep it afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.

But US President Joe Biden suspended the mining project last month in response to concerns from Native Americans who say it will destroy sacred land and environmentalists who fear it will engulf water in a drought-stricken state.

This has fueled anxiety among Lewis and others here in Superior, Arizona, who want to reap the economic benefits of a mine that would harvest over 40 billion pounds of copper.

“I sunk everything I had in this place,” said Lewis, surrounded by impact drills, wrenches and other merchandise in his store. “It would absolutely destroy us if this mine didn’t open.”

By halting the project, Biden overturned a decision by predecessor Donald Trump that would have given Rio land for the mine. Biden ordered a more in-depth analysis of the project by the government.

The ongoing struggle pits conservationists and Native Americans against local authorities and residents who support its economic benefits. The complex debate is a harbinger of battles to come as the United States aims to build more electric vehicles, which use twice as much copper as those equipped with internal combustion engines. The Resolution mine could meet about 25% of the demand for a US cooper.

The dispute in Arizona centers on the Oak Flat Campground, which some Apache (NASDAQ 🙂 consider to be home to deities known as Ga’an. Religious ceremonies are held at the site, near the Apache San Carlos Reserve, to celebrate the majority of teenage girls. Many Apache have ancestors buried under volcanic rock.

In 2014, the Obama administration and Congress launched a complex process to give Rio 3,000 acres of federally owned land, including the campground, in exchange for 4,500 acres that Rio owns nearby. Biden suspended this transfer.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

“If Rio gets this place, then the mine will kill the angels and deities that live here,” said Wendsler Nosie, a member of the San Carlos Apache tribe who ran a protest camp for 18 months at the site. A sign there describes the earth, known as Chi’chil Bildagoteel in the Western Apache language, as the physical embodiment of the spirit of the earth.

Nosie has mobilized broad support for his cause, aided by growing global attention to the rights of indigenous peoples. Rio itself fueled this cause last year when it blew up culturally important Aboriginal rock shelters in Australia.

If the land swap is approved, Rio has said it will keep the campsite open for decades to come before the underground mine causes a crater to engulf the site. The company also said it would seek the tribe’s consent for the project and explore ways to avoid causing the crater.

“The land swap gives us the ability to collect more data, then we can refine our plans and look for ways to avoid and further minimize” damage to the site, said Vicky Peacey, permitting manager for the project. from Rio.

Rio, which is based in Australia and the UK, has also pledged to preserve other cultural sites, including Apache Leap, a rocky cliff that overlooks Superior and where the Apaches jumped to their deaths to avoid being captured by American troops at the end of the 19th century.

‘AMERICAN COPPER’

Politicians in Superior – a city of 3,000 that voted almost two to one for Democrat Biden last November in a Republican-majority county – are now pushing the president to change his mind.

The land swap, if Biden approves it, would also allow the city of Superior to purchase more than 600 acres that authorities deem crucial to diversifying the local economy by expanding the airport, developing an industrial park and building affordable housing.

“President Biden is going to have to make courageous decisions,” said Mayor Mila Besich, Democrat.

Mining is key to achieving Biden’s goal of expanding production of electric vehicles, she said. “We’re going to need more American copper,” she said.

While the area has long been popular with hikers and campers, it is better known as the “Copper Corridor,” with mines from Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE 🙂 Inc and others.

The closure of the Magma copper mine in 1996 devastated Superior’s economy. Officials have now put their hopes on Resolution. Since the discovery of the copper deposit in 1995, Rio and its minority partner BHP Group (NYSE 🙂 Plc have spent more than $ 2 billion to dig an exploration mine shaft and dismantle a former Magma smelter. They haven’t produced copper yet. BHP declined to comment.

More than half of Superior’s downtown buildings are empty. Several Tesla (NASDAQ 🙂 Inc charging stations allude to the city’s aspirations to be part of the electric vehicle boom. Nikola Corp and Lucid Motors are building their own EV factories within 80 km.

Rio has pledged to hire 1,400 full-time workers for an average annual salary of over $ 100,000. That’s almost half the population of a city with a median income one-third below the national average.

“What is sacred to my community is that people have jobs and housing,” said Besich, the mayor.

The mine would increase state, local and federal tax coffers by $ 280 million per year and add $ 1 billion to the state’s economy, the Arizona governor said.

Besich backed down when studies showed Rio would pay the city just $ 350,000 a year in taxes, well below the $ 1 million it would need each year to increase police, fire and road maintenance. .

Rio agreed to pay the city more, guarantee Superior’s water supply, and donate $ 1.2 million to the school district. Superintendent Steve Estatico said without Rio’s support, schools in the district – where enrollment has fallen 13% since 2016 – could close.

“Rio has had to learn in recent years that it cannot take host communities for granted,” Besich said.

STALLED NEGOTIATIONS

The San Carlos Apache – one of the first Native American tribes to endorse Biden’s presidential candidacy – did not negotiate with Rio because its tribal council promotes direct talks with the U.S. government, President Terry Rambler said.

Rio copper chief Bold Baatar has said he hopes to negotiate directly with the tribe when he travels to Arizona as early as June, once pandemic restrictions allow.

“We hear everyone’s concerns,” Baatar told Reuters. “There won’t be a mine until we make our best efforts to obtain consent.”

Not all local Native Americans are opposed to the mine. Some members of the White Mountain Apache tribe, whose reserve is just north of San Carlos Apache, say they don’t consider the campsite a sacred site.

“The belief that the site is religious is news to me,” said Alvena Bush, an Apache advisor from White Mountain who supports the project.

WATER CONCERNS

Rio has dug a mine shaft almost 7,000 feet (2 km) underground on land it owns near the campground. The bottom of the shaft has become a gathering place for future mining operations.

The miner drains water from the nearby copper deposit to facilitate extraction. Over 600 gallons of water are pumped every minute to surface treatment plants for use in local agriculture.

Rio plans to mine the copper using a technique known as block caving. This involves carving a cave out of a large section of rock, which then collapses under the weight of the rock above, creating a crater 2 miles (3 km) wide and 1000 (304 m) deep. .

This method would damage the aquifers that feed two local sources, according to an environmental study by the US Forest Service. The entire mine would reduce available groundwater in the area, which has suffered a drought since the late 1990s, according to the report.

“This land will be worthless if there is no water to accompany it,” said Henry Munoz, who heads a group of retired miners from the superior opposed to the project.

Biden is expected to decide later this spring to give Rio the land for the mine. Lewis, the owner of the hardware store, hopes his fate will be considered among all competing interests.

“If I had one thing to say to President Biden, it would be, ‘Let the mine open’,” he said.

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