Historic Arizona mining town backs copper project on land that Native American groups say is sacred

Main Street is shown on June 9 in Superior, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

SUPERIOR, Ariz. — Growing up in a mining family that goes back generations, Mayor Mila Besich knew the Oak Flat Campground as the place where she attended union picnics as a girl and in earlier years her parents stood in a clearing to hear the World Series on the radio.

Now, Besich is overseeing Superior’s fight to build a new copper project at Oak Flat amid worries about the town’s economic future.

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Today, the national forest land in the heart of Arizona’s “Copper Corridor” is scattered with 20 rustic campsites among ancient oaks and a hand-painted sign that reads: “Protect Oak Flat, Holy Land.” Buried deep underground is the world’s third-largest deposit of copper ore, big enough to yield 40 billion pounds (18 billion kilograms) of the metal over 60 years.

Competing interests have ignited a tug of war between the town of about 3,000 people who want a huge copper mine built there for its economic benefits, and Native American groups that consider the land sacred and are fighting to protect it from disturbance.

“Our town is going to be the most affected,” said the mayor. “What about our culture?”

Resolution Copper Mining, a joint subsidiary of U.K. and Australian mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP, hopes to build one of the world’s largest underground copper mines at the site outside Superior, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) east of Phoenix. Managing partner Rio Tinto says the mine could satisfy a quarter of growing U.S. demand for copper used in electric vehicles and smartphones.

Resolution began the permitting process nearly a decade ago, but the project has been delayed amid legal and political wrangling between U.S. agencies and the nonprofit Apache Stronghold, which challenges a planned land swap that would make the project possible. The full U.S. 9th District Court of Appeals is considering Apache Stronghold’s request to permanently halt the project, but the only thing stopping it now is the lack of a new environmental impact statement.

Two other lawsuits challenging the initial environmental review, one filed by the San Carlos Apache Tribe and the other by environmental groups, have gone nowhere since the U.S. government pulled the impact statement for more consultations.

Oak Flat is on Tonto National Forest property to be conveyed to Resolution under a land exchange that Congress approved in a 2014 rider to a must-pass defense bill.

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