To the dismay of Native Americans and environmentalists, a crater this size could become reality and devastate native land in the southwestern state of Arizona if Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto’s Resolution Copper venture is granted permission to begin extraction from what is believed to be the largest undeveloped copper deposits in the world.
For more than a decade, Resolution Copper has been trying to gain control of the territory above the copper deposits, land that is held sacred by a number of indigenous peoples including the San Carlos and Yavapai Apache tribes, as a gathering place, ceremonial spot and burial site.
One of the areas under threat is Oak Flat (Chi'Chil'Ba'Goteel in Apache), which is both a sacred cultural place for Native Americans as well as a national treasure. About four years ago a federally-charted preservation group listed Oak Flat among America’s most endangered historic places.
San Carlos Apache tribal leader Wendsler Nosie, Sr. stated that a combination of corporate greed and the government’s callous disregard for Native American culture will lead to the decimation of the tribe’s spiritual home at Oak Flat.
"By desecrating it [Oak Flat], eliminating it forever, it will affect the next generation and ties to this religious place", Nosie, who is also a former tribe chairman and councilmember, said. "What Resolution Copper wants to do brings great fear to all Indian nations in this country".
Anatomy of a Betrayal
On 7 November, the government is set to release a final environmental impact statement on the Resolution Copper project involving public land located nearly 30 miles outside the Arizona state capital of Phoenix and just over 160 miles north of the Mexico border.
However, the report itself could end up being an exercise in futility because politicians in Washington deceptively pushed through legislation that guarantees the rights of the company regardless of the potential environmental impact.
US Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, both from Arizona, led an effort in 2015 to tip the scales in Resolution Copper’s favour by slipping a rider into a must-pass defence budget bill at the proverbial eleventh hour that authorised a land swap involving sacred tribal territory.
As a result, Section 3003 of the 2015 US National Defense Authorisation Act allows Resolution Copper to seize a roughly 2,400-acre parcel of federally protected public land in the Tonto National Forest in exchange for about 5,000 acres from other spots around the state.
In addition to portions of Tonto National Forest, indigenous tribes are trying to protect other areas that will be affected by the copper mining project including Oak Flat, Devil’s Canyon, and nearby Apache Leap - an important historic site where 75 tribe members jumped off a cliff to their deaths rather than be captured by the US cavalry.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, these historic sites and sacred lands also happen to sit atop the world’s largest undeveloped copper deposits, estimated to contain a mineral resource of 1.7 billion metric tons at an average grade of 1.52 percent copper. Resolution Copper officials say they will extract about 132,000 tons of rock daily from the ore body, which is 7,000 feet below ground.
However, a USDA report also warned that the Resolution Copper mineral extraction process will produce 1.5 billion tons of waste tailings that could further degrade the environment.
Tailings are finely ground rock fragments, usually a mud-like material, which is often toxic and must be perpetually isolated. The storage and handling of tailings continues to be a major environmental issue worldwide.
McCain’s action triggered widespread condemnation in indigenous communities across the country, among conservationists and environmental groups, those concerned about climate change, rock climbers, hunters, fishermen and women, those who enjoy hiking and camping and Arizona residents who live in towns like Superior, Globe, Queen Valley and cities as far away as Tempe and Tucson.
Rio Tinto, however, has said the company not only respects tribal culture but believes the Resolution Copper mining project will boost the local economy.
But the company’s assurances ring hollow for Tribal Chairman Terry Rambler, Nosie and other Native American activists and reverberates when put in the context of the American government’s treatment of indigenous people in this country.
History shows that the US government negotiated and signed as many as 500 treaties with Native American nations from the Iroquois to the Lenni Lenape to the Lakota to the Shoshone, to the Sioux to the Apache nation and broke almost every single one.
According to the treaties, Indians were to be treated as autonomous nations and dealt with diplomatically, like foreign governments. That did not happen. Reservations were ruled by unelected white agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who outlawed native language and religion. But in past decades, reservations have established their own governments and, with bands of lawyers, have fought for - and, in many cases, won back - their treaty rights.
Elsewhere in 2019, Native Americans are under assault from President Donald Trump’s administration which is intent on opening up federal territory where indigenous peoples are shunted off to mining and oil interests including pristine land in Alaska and the coastlines of Florida and California.
However, US federal government discrimination and disrespect of indigenous peoples is not unique to Trump. In 2016, during the Obama administration, 120 tribes and scores of rights groups – including Black Lives Matter - joined the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in its bid to halt construction of the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
The opposition was fueled by both environmental and human rights concerns especially over the way the decision was blatantly made to protect white interests while harming Native Americans.
In the initial proposal, the DAPL route went through Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota, where 92 percent of the 61,000 residents are white. After the US Army Corps of Engineers determined that the pipeline could contaminate drinking water, it was rerouted to pass by Standing Rock.
Protesters erected barricades to block machinery used to excavate the soil and prevented crews from burrowing beneath the Missouri River for fear oils spills would poison freshwater sources and destroy sacred lands. Local authorities beat, caged and brutalised demonstrators with an intensity not seen since the 1960s.
As if to substantiate the concerns of the Standing Rock protestors, 383,000 gallons of crude spilled into North Dakota wetlands last week from the Keystone Pipeline, triggering more anger and further cementing opposition to plans to lengthen the pipeline.
Meanwhile, ever since the Resolution Copper initiative began over a decade ago, mistrust has deepened between Arizona tribal leaders and the company partly due to what the tribes see as an unjust lack of transparency.
In public statements, during this period Rambler and Nosie said the company has repeatedly refused to provide details regarding the environmental, financial, and economic impacts of the project.
The US federal government, in the meantime, has moved the San Carlos Apache Tribe as many as five times, constantly uprooting the people when they found copper, gold and other natural resources, Rambler has said in testimonies over the years.
Rambler has also argued that the McCain bill would set a dangerous precedent by transferring a known sacred tribal area located on federal land to a foreign-owned mining company for activities that will ultimately destroy the area while circumventing consultation between the government and the tribes.
Government Study Fuels Anger
Years of protests, town halls, complaints delivered via letter and congressional hearings are coming to a head as the process that would finalise the land swap is nearing an end.
The US Forest Service (USFS) released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on 9 August and has been entertaining public comment, from supporters and critics alike, about the mining project.
Sandy Bahr, executive director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter, said that she, Nosie and other critics have spoken at several of the public hearings over the DEIS.
"There’s strong opposition. We’re pushing to reduce this", Bahr said. "I call it an abomination. It’s so unnecessary. There’s nothing we can do to stop them from mining on public land. To just put it [the land exchange] into a bill that is unrelated is just deplorable. We’re trying to figure out a way to stop it from going forward".
The next step, she added, is for Forest Service staff to review comments, respond and come out with a final impact statement. Once that is done they will try to make the land swap, although Bahr hopes they can stop it or that the forest service pursues the "no action" alternative.
"The Forest Service dismissed from consideration other alternatives. Other options will not cause a big old crater", she said. "I find it heartbreaking. I’ve lived 30 years in the area, but for indigenous people it’s been so much longer. It’s inexcusable and unjust [and] unfair".
The concerns of all the people speaking at the public meetings about the project have been roundly ignored by a number of members of US Congress, Bahr said.
Nosie said opponents of the land swap are moving with greater urgency as the process moves squarely into the draft period.
"Resolution [Copper] bought property adjacent to Oak Flat. They have other mining permits and they have purchased other mining areas as far as we know, but their primary goal is to take Oak Flat", he said. "The biggest challenge now is the urgency we have in this draft period".
However, Nosie also warned that the draft process may end up being irrelevant.
"The Draft Environmental Impact Statement is a scam", Nosie said. "The legislation reads that regardless of the report, the land transfer will take place".
Hence, Nosie hopes people around the country can voice their opposition and pressure congressional leaders to abandon the legislation which has been proposed in both the US House and Senate.
Bahr contends that the 1,300-page DEIS is deficient in a number of areas.
"There’s not adequate analysis of where the tailings are going, the impacts to endangered species, and the DEIS has not seriously considered the cultural impact of this project", Bahr said.
Roger Featherstone, executive director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, noted he remains optimistic that the broad coalition of organisations, indigenous people and individuals will win this battle.
"You can’t engage in these battles without being optimistic otherwise what’s the point?" he asked. "I ultimately think we’ll win".
If people did not fight back, companies would destroy everything, Featherstone argued.
"I think there’s a real disconnect between the higher-ups and what happens on the grounds. It’s a combination of hubris and testosterone", Featherstone said.
Featherstone, who has been on the frontlines of this fight for at least a decade, said there are more things wrong with the DEIS than he can list.
"This document is remarkable because it’s long but doesn’t really say anything. What’s in it is troubling. We asked the Forest Service to take it back and do it again", he said.
Among those issues troubling him include the fact the original tailings location is unclear, the water table of one location is higher and not at the same level at other testing locations.
And, he added, there are doubts about if the ground at one site is stable enough to build a dam. In addition, the report totally missed a fault in the ground along Dripping Springs Wash, Featherstone noted.
"The bottom line is this is an experiment. Mining has never been done at this depth", he warned.
Residents of Superior, the nearly 3,000-person town that will likely be most affected by the mining operation, have expressed both hope and skepticism about the process and the future.
Superior Town Manager Todd Pryor stated that in October the city council voted to support the Resolution Copper mining project but detailed its concerns in a comment letter responding to the draft environmental impact study.
He said while the mining project is an economic opportunity, there are concerns from council members about the socio-economic impact.
"The current taxing structure doesn’t benefit Superior because the company is just outside the city. Also, we don’t get as many employees living in town as other projects in the past. Then there are concerns about the impacts of water. We’re working with the company to address these and other issues. We asked them to put together an endowment in perpetuity as a separate community foundation so that we can react to impacts unforeseen", Pryor explained.
Trail of Disaster
It appears the San Carlos Apache and their environmental allies may be facing their last chance to halt the destruction and degradation of the tribe’s spiritual cradle and this week’s DEIS release marks a pivotal moment.
However, the diverse set of tribal organisations and advocacy groups that have united to fight this corporate effort to exploit native land seem bent on continuing the battle especially given the historical track record of Rio Tinto along with partner entities like BHP Billiton.
There are even tribal members who have vowed to give their lives to ensure that Resolution Copper does not gain control of sacred land.
In 2007, Nosie told a House congressional committee that the Apache people cannot under any circumstances support the Resolution Copper plan.
"The foul environmental track record and history of shameful treatment of indigenous people by Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton are well known. Their record speaks volumes", Nosie argued. "Both companies’ operations over the years have left a wake of environmental destruction, human rights complaints, and lawsuits filed worldwide".
The Apache tribal leader noted that the Greens Creek Mine in Alaska, owned by Rio Tinto and two other companies, is alleged to be the state’s second largest discharger of toxic waste "releasing 59 million pounds of toxic chemicals in one year, and violating the Clean Water Act 391 times."
Nosie also pointed out that in the UK Rio Tinto’s Capper Pass smelter dropped 1.3 pounds of emissions on residents each week, leading to a settlement with hundreds of claimants in which the company "refused to accept blame but provided compensation to those with cancer and other illnesses".
On the other side of the world, he added, current and former residents of Papua New Guinea sued Rio Tinto alleging violations of international law including crimes against humanity related to its operation of a large scale mine.
In the same country, Rio Tinto partner company BHP Billiton was sued for more than $4 billion for destruction of the Ningerum people’s traditional lands.
To this day, Nosie continued, villagers are no longer able to safely eat locally harvested fish or food grown from their own gardens.
"It is estimated that it will take 300 years to clean up the area of the contamination which the mining operation caused", Nosie said. "It is often stated that history is prophesy. In this case, the historical conduct of Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton provide no assurances that these companies will keep their promise to protect Apache Leap, or for that matter, to protect the environment and respect the traditional culture and religious values of the Apache People".
US, Copper Interests Push Back
The mining interests and US government agencies despite all of the negative feedback and opposition have stood by the process and the draft environmental assessment of the copper development project.
Resolution Copper spokesman Dan Blondeau lauded the release of the DEIS, saying it "marks a significant milestone" for Rio Tinto’s initiative.
"The EIS reflects more than 500 distinct engagements, an extensive study by the US Forest Service (USFS) and independent third-party analysis to shape the future development of the Resolution Copper project", Blondeau said.
The USFS, he added, rigorously analysed dozens of alternatives to the original mine plan proposal including different locations for tailings and alternative mining methods.
Moreover, he said the USFS had extensive assistance from county, state, tribal and other local officials and jurisdictions and underscored the transparent nature of the assessment.
"The public was notably involved in the process by providing comprehensive feedback", Blondeau noted.
The draft analysis also highlights cultural resources, tribal values and a plan for tribal training, he said.
The Resolution Copper representative also argued that extensive input from local stakeholders and a dozen Native American tribes led to the Apache Leap Special Management Area (ALSMA) to protect the historic Apache Leap mountain site in Superior, Arizona.
"We respect the sovereign nature of Tribal communities and recognise that Tribes have cultural interests that go beyond the border of their reservations", Blondeau said. "It is our absolute aim to work together to preserve Native culture. Also, we want to work together to provide direct employment, job training, education, and commercial opportunities for Native American-owned businesses that will last for decades to come".
This is not the first time the company has attempted to publicly fight the resistance. In 2015, former Resolution Project Director Andrew Taplin in a letter to critics said the project would create nearly 4,000 jobs and generate $61 billion in revenue.
Taplin pointed to examples of how the "mutual benefit framework" around mining is working including for Navajo tribes in New Mexico who took over ownership and operation of a mine.
He even noted how the San Carlos Apache are partnering with a mining company to sell water from their reservation to boost revenue for the tribe.
The former Resolution Copper official said the cases demonstrate industry and tribes can jointly develop projects, share the economic benefits, and still protect culturally and historically important areas.
The USFS, for its part, has been under fire from critics for acquiescing to Resolution Copper and other mining interests, although officials - in several public hearings - have said the law ties their hands.
"There is a mining law which tends to guide the process for starting a project such as this", USFS spokesman John Scaggs said during a hearing. "Under mining law, the Forest Service has to analyse the mining impact or it would have to make changes. We have an environmental consultant who assists and content is drawn from that".
At the end of the public comment period, Scaggs said USFS staff will compile and evaluate the applicability of the comments as it relates to what is in the DEIS.
The deciding official, Scaggs noted, is the supervisor for Tonto National Forest who has the authority to extend or not extend the project.
Last Sacred Stand
The tribes have noted the conspicuous absence of outrage emanating from religious circles within the United States to the San Carlos Apache struggle with Resolution Copper given the spiritual significance of the land.
Rambler, the current tribe chairman, in interviews and congressional testimony spanning several years made his position and that of his allies clear about the importance of the spiritual angle.
The Oak Flat area continues to play a vital role in Apache religion, tradition, and culture including centuries-old ceremonies, Rambler told the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources during a hearing in 2013.
"The Oak Flat area is a place filled with power - a place where Apaches today go for prayer, to conduct ceremonies such as Holy Ground and the Sunrise Dance that celebrates a young woman’s coming of age, to gather medicines and ceremonial items, and to seek and obtain peace and personal cleansing", Rambler told the senators. "The Oak Flat area and everything in it belongs to powerful Diyin, or Holy Beings, and is the home of a particular kind of Gaan, which are mighty Mountain Spirits and Holy Beings on whom we Apaches depend for our well-being".
Nosie himself has made comparisons to the Christian religion and argued that the sacredness of either shrines is no different.
"They are all in their place in a unique and irreplaceable region. The traditional cultural and religious values of these places for the Apache People, and the collective integrity of the entire area as a whole, will be destroyed by the surface subsidence and other aspects of the mining proposed by Resolution Copper", Nosie said in testimony in 2007.
Nosie has argued that even if Apache Leap was protected from subsidence by the proposed conservation easement, the site would eventually be surrounded by 2,300 acres of land "that will be irretrievably damaged and defiled by the proposed mining project".
"This would be akin to leaving the sanctuary of a church intact, but allowing for the desecration and destruction of the rest of the church, which destroys, in itself, the purpose of the church as community gathering place and place of worship", Nosie argued.
There are tribal members who have vowed to give their lives to ensure that Resolution Copper does not gain control of sacred land.
"The Apache People cannot, under any circumstances, support this result, especially where the devastating impacts from the mining activities to be conducted on, around, and deep underneath this sacred place will be felt forever once the mining is finished, leaving our future generations to suffer the legacy of damage left behind", Nosie said.
The tribal elder’s daughter, Vanessa Nosie, an activist in her own right, stated that she has opposed the Resolution Copper proposal "from day one" but is not surprised where the situation is headed.
She also stressed the fact that the struggle against Resolution Copper was more than a tribal issue.
"This is not just an Apache or Indian fight, it’s a fight to save all creation", Vanessa Nosie said.
The federal government’s tactics against tribal peoples including the Apache have not changed over the centuries, she observed.
"They [US government] have tried complete genocide. They imprisoned us, put us in concentration camps. From our past history to the present, nothing’s changed. The system is still the same - they always go back to divide and conquer, Manifest Destiny", Ms Nosie said. "They still want to divide and conquer, still want to kill the Indian but save the man".
The Apache tribe is still dealing with trauma and depression, Vanessa added, but she still sees the beauty and resilience of the people.
Ms Nosie said that although she hopes lawmakers will step in and prevent the Resolution Copper plan from going forward, the tribe will ultimately succeed because they are blessed by spiritual gifts.
"We hope Congress will stop this, but, they [Resolution Copper] can be stopped because we’re a spiritual movement. We will take this and push back against the evil of [US] Congress. We have spirituality and live with the blessed gift of the Creator. The Creator plays a huge part in this fight", Vanessa Nosie concluded.