The US Forest Service has halted progress on the creation of a Rio Tinto copper mine in Arizona after it informed a federal court that it does not have a timeline for the completion of the deal’s review.
Oak Flat, sited on federally owned land in Arizona, is the subject of an attempted land swap between the federal government and Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto. The mining giant hopes that the proposed Resolution Copper Mine built on the site will supply as much as 25% of the US’s required copper.
Local indigenous communities have objected to the process. Oak Flat is a listed Traditional Cultural Property that holds religious significance in some native American cultures. Native rights campaign group Apache-Stronghold says that Oak Flat has been a gathering place for tribal ceremonies with centuries of culture.
Rio Tinto argues that an 1852 treaty between the US Government and Apache tribesmen does not grant the tribe right to the relevant land.
In 2021, US President Joe Biden unpublished the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) into the prospective land swap, commissioned by his predecessor Donald Trump, in order to give his own administration a chance to review it. Although an attorney for the US Forest Service had told Rio Tinto that the FEIS would be republished “this spring”, this has now been cast into doubt.
In an open letter to Joe Biden, Apache-Stronghold said that the rescinded FEIS stated: “The mine would create a crater up to two miles wide and 1,000 feet deep. It would consume more than 250 billion gallons of water in an area that is already suffering from a historic mega-drought.”
The letter added: “The mine would create 1.4 billion tons of toxic mine tailings that would cover nearly 4,000 acres of nearby wildlands, threatening to contaminate groundwater and surface water forever.”
The mine’s supporters claim that the copper mined from the site will support the US energy transition through the production of EV batteries. Rio Tinto’s website states: “We are encouraged by the significant local support for the project, but respect the views of certain groups who oppose it, and we will continue our efforts to address and mitigate these concerns.”