The US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld an earlier decision, allowing the federal government to transfer land in Arizona to mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP for the Resolution Copper project, Reuters reported.

This ruling supports a 2014 Congressional decision and has significant implications for the mining sector and indigenous communities.

The court’s 6-5 decision comes at a politically charged time, with the US presidential election on the horizon.

The Resolution Copper project has been a point of contention, with former President Donald Trump supporting the mine and President Joe Biden, who won Arizona in 2020 with Native American support, facing a complex situation.

The Apache Stronghold, a non-profit group that includes the San Carlos Apache tribe, has long opposed the mine, citing the destruction of a sacred site.

The proposed mine is expected to meet more than a quarter of US copper demand, which is critical for the renewable energy transition.

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The full bench of the 9th Circuit Court heard the case in March, following a preliminary ruling in favour of Rio Tinto in 2022.

The dispute revolves around Oak Flat, a site sacred to the Apache and rich in copper reserves, which are essential for electric vehicle production.

A majority of the judges in the 253-page ruling concluded that the land transfer would not substantially burden the San Carlos Apaches’ religious rights. They argued that the transfer did not coerce the tribe into ceasing their worship.

Conversely, the dissenting judges contended that the destruction of the worship site would make it impossible for the Apache to practice their religion.

Despite the setback, Apache Stronghold has been persistent in its legal efforts to prevent the land transfer but has faced defeat in three consecutive court rulings.

Becket Law attorney Luke Goodrich was quoted by the news agency as saying: “This ruling is illogical and it is unjust.

“The group intends to appeal to the Supreme Court and feels it has a strong case given how closely divided the appeals court was.”

Luke Goodrich represents Apache Stronghold.