House of Representatives supports giving federal land to foreign company
The U.S. House of Representatives has approved a bill that authorizes the transfer of 2,400 acres of Arizona federal forest land to the UK and Australia-based mining company, Rio Tinto.
In a 235-186 vote this week, the House passed the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2011, which approves the trade of 2,400 acres of federal land for 5,000 acres controlled by the mining company.
A Rio Tinto subsidiary, Resolution Copper Mining, is seeking the land swap in order to better access what it claims may be the largest copper ore body in the world near Superior, Arizona.
The mining company claims that the project will create jobs but the swap is opposed by numerous groups in Arizona.
In testimony to the U.S. Senate Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests in June 2009, Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter argued that the land swap will diminish recreational opportunities and threaten rare and endangered plants and animals including the black-chinned sparrow, Costa’s hummingbird, Lewis’ woodpecker, and the endangered Arizona hedgehog cactus.
The land sought by the mining company includes the Tonto National Forest’s Oak Flat Campground, which was recognized as an important natural resource and placed off limits to mining activity by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955.
Bahr also warned that the mine will deplete the area’s already scarce water supply.
According to Resolution Copper Company (RCC), this mine will need as much as 20,000 acre-feet of water per year. An acre-foot of water is roughly the amount of water a family of four uses in one year, so 20,000 acre-feet is enough water for 20,000 families or 80,000 people for one year. … What will the impact of this be? Considering how important as water is in Arizona, the continued long-term droughts we experience, and the predictions of scientists that we are going to get hotter and drier due to the impacts of climate change, it would be irresponsible to move this bill without a thorough analysis and some strong assurances that the water will be there and will not risk riparian areas or drinking water supplies.
The Arizona Mining Reform Coalition points out that the Oak Flat Campground is used by birders, campers, canyoneers, bikers and hikers and includes areas used by Native Americans for cultural and spiritual purposes.
“The land exchange would include Apache Leap,” the coalition writes, “a cliff where more than 80 Apache warriors chose to leap to their deaths rather than surrender to the US calvary.”
In 2009 the National Congress of American Indians passed a resolution that asked the U.S. federal government to recognize and protect the area’s cultural and spiritual value and to protect it from mining.
The Congress said that mining this area will “break the relationships between tribes and all the elements of the natural world in this region,… result in the diminishment of the power and effectiveness of tribal ceremonies, songs, prayers, and traditional life … and add to physical and mental illnesses, and social problems.”
This is not the first time the company has run afoul of both Native Americans or environmentalists. Another Rio Tinto subsidiary, Kennecott Eagle, is developing a nickel and copper mine in the Upper Peninsula on land that is considered sacred by local tribes.
They are also facing a lawsuit in Wisconsin over the leaching of toxic chemicals from a mine there and another suit by citizens of Papua New Guinea accusing them of engaging in genocide and human rights violations for another mine in that country.
The land swap bill is supported by business groups including the American Supply Association, the Associated General Contractors of America, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Mining Association, Rio Tinto, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, and Americans for Prosperity, according to Maplight, a nonpartisan organization that researches money in politics.
Maplight found that supporters of the bill spent 14 times as much as those opposing it.
The group found that metal mining and processing groups gave on average 22 times as much to House Republicans that voted “yes” as they gave to House Republicans that voted “no”.
Amendments to exempt Native American heritage sites from the land transfer, charge royalties on the minerals extracted from the transfered land and require that the company hire local workers were all rejected in the House.
A 2000 Government Accountability Office review of 2,600 transactions involving swaps of federal land between 1989 and 1999 found that government agencies “did not ensure that the land being exchanged was appropriately valued or that exchanges served the public interest”.