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What You Need To Know About Arizona's Proposed Oak Flat Copper Mine

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Tonto National Forest, which includes the Oak Flat area, the location where Resolution Copper wants to build a copper mine.

Let's turn now to the latest on the battle over Oak Flat, Arizona, where a proposed copper mine has sparked a debate over industry versus the environment. Resolution Copper wants to build a copper mine in that part of the Tonto National Forest that would become one of the largest in the country. They say it would provide more than 1,000 jobs to a part of the state that needs them, but conservationists and American Indian tribes say it will irreparably harm the environment there. KJZZ’s Lauren Gilger and Ron Dungan discuss the latest.

Lauren Gilger: Okay, so in a nutshell, tell us what's been happening with all of this in the last few months?

Ron Dungan: Well, in a nutshell, three lawsuits were filed to stop the mine. That's because in the waning days of the Trump administration, the Forest Service released an environmental impact statement that would have allowed the project to move forward. The agency got a lot of blowback on that from the San Carlos Apache Tribe. They said the whole thing was moving too fast. But even in normal times, it's tough to schedule all the meetings that need to happen for a project like this. But these weren't normal times. There was a pandemic, and the tribe had had a horrible time just trying to keep their people safe.

Gilger: The Biden administration took over the Forest Service and withdrew that environmental impact statement back in March. What does that mean for the proposed mine? Does this stop the process? Does this just delay it?

Dungan: It just delays it for now. I mean, the Forest Service withdrew the statement which buys the tribe some time. And there are all these various lawsuits in various stages. But the real game changer might be the bill that Raul Grijalva introduced the block the mine. The bill recently cleared the House Natural Resources Committee. During a testimony in the bill, critics pointed out the amount of water that the mine could cause some real problems. If it goes forward, the mind would pump water from the same basin it serves Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and other east valley communities. Here's what James Wells and environmental geologists had to say about the amount of water the mind would use:

James Wells: "This represents a massive new water demand in a region already experiencing water shortage. The final EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) says this mine will use at least 250 billion gallons of water."

Gilger: That's a big commitment of groundwater. And let's not forget, like we're in a drought that is getting worse. They're already major concerns about our Colorado River supply of water. Where does all this play in?

Dungan: Yeah, that's right, Arizona already has to cut back on its CAP (Central Arizona Project) water because of a drought contingency plan just kicked in. So that's not going to affect users in the valley much at this point, but it will affect farmers and Pinal County. Roger Featherstone of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition said that farmers aren't raising any objections to the mind, but they might if the project drops the water table 450 feet:

Roger Featherstone: "When the drought contingency stuff takes effect next year like they're talking, then those farmers they're not going to get the cap supply water and they're going to have to rely on groundwater. So the availabilty of groundwater then becomes a lot more critical."

Gilger: So we're on this project would be located near Superior, Arizona. What do people who live there have to say about it?

Dungan: The mayor of Superior testified against the bill after Wells testified. She wants the mine because it's supposed to provide jobs for the area. What's interesting about this mine is that some former miners and community leaders in Superior don't support it. This isn't a traditional mine. They'd be using a block cave technique, which means they're going to sink a shaft into the ground about 7,000 feet deep and move the copper up that. Block cave mining has been done before, but nobody's ever quite gone as deep. This is going to create a hole underground that's nearly two miles wide and 800 feet deep. I spoke to Henry Munoz, a former miner who has served in the Superior Town Council, and he said Superior should pass in his mine and focus in tourism instead:

Henry Munoz: "You know what needs only to look up how much money tourism generates for the state versus mining. A lot more money is generated millions and millions more on recreation in the state, to our state coffers, than mining does."

Gilger: So what's next in all this?

Dungan: There are still three lawsuits out there, last I counted. A judge has ruled against the Apache Stronghold because it didn't have a government to government relationship with policymakers in Washington. But challenging a mine is a long legal legal road to go down. Mining law favors the companies. It's possible the only way to help this project would be legislation. Grijalva's bill is likely to pass in the House. What remains to be seen is if the Senate version of this bill, introduced by Bernie Sanders, will pass.

Gilger: All right, we'll be watching for more on all of that. Ron, thanks so much for your reporting on this.

Dungan: Thank you.

Support for KJZZ’s coverage of tribal resources comes from Katina Foundation, dedicated to restoring human and ecological systems.

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