Trump deadenders rush to give Apache sacred land to a mining company

A last-minute transfer of Arizona’s Oak Flat, protected from miners since the Eisenhower administration

By Sarah Okeson

Published January 16, 2021 11:59AM (EST)

U.S. President Donald Trump (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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Team Trump is racing to transfer sacred land in Arizona to a mining company just days before Donald Trump's term ends.

President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate a Native American who participated in a hearing critical of the proposed mine, U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), to lead the Interior Department.

"This place is going to be murdered," said Wendsler Nosie Sr., former chairman of the San Carlos Apache tribe.

The environmental study needed to initiate the 2,422-acre transfer is expected to be released Friday. Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit group, has sued in federal court to try to block the land swap to Resolution Copper LLC.

Chi'ChilBildagoteel, often called Oak Flat, is located in the Tonto National Forest about 40 miles east of Phoenix. It is a sacred site for the San Carlos Apache tribe and other tribal nations. Native Americans hold religious and cultural ceremonies and gather food and medicine. President Dwight Eisenhower protected the area from mining in 1955.

Consultant Steve Emerman told the House subcommittee in March that the proposed copper mine "is the worst mining project I have ever encountered."

Plans by Resolution Copper, a partnership of Rio Tinto and BHP, call for building a dam to contain mine waste. A similar dam, the Brumadinho Dam, which contained 1% of the waste that the Arizona dam would hold failed in Brazil in 2019, killing 270 people. Florence, Ariz., a town with more than 26,000 people, is about 10 miles away from one of the sites proposed for a dam.

"We are seriously discussing a mining project in Arizona that would be illegal even in China," Emerman said.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon put a loophole in the mining ban, allowing the land to be swapped to a private owner who wouldn't be subject to the ban. Arizona senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, a former lobbyist for a subsidiary of mining behemoth Rio Tino, snuck in a provision in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that authorized the swap.

"I am sorry I wasn't here when this bill was finagled into the NDAA," Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, said during a hearing in March. "I am sorry that I didn't have a voice in Congress when it was important."

Resolution Copper plans to mine 1.4 billion tons of ore, creating a crater twice as deep as the Washington Monument.

The Rio Tinto Group spent $690,000 on federal lobbying in 2020. BHP spent $170,000.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross visited Phoenix in October and praised the proposed mine.

"The U.S. has a special appreciation for global enterprises like Rio Tinto that choose to engage in projects like this one on our shores," Ross said.

Sarah Okeson

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Apache Arizona Interior Department Mining Native Americans Trump Administration