A federal appeals court ruled Sept. 14 that a proposed land exchange between the federal Bureau of Land Management and copper miner Asarco LLC violates environmental laws.
The ruling in the lawsuit filed by three environmental groups in 2001 overturns a lower court decision backing the exchange long sought by Asarco.
The swap would give Asarco nearly 11,000 acres of public land in exchange for 7,300 acres of the company’s private holdings. It would allow Asarco to expand its Ray copper mine 50 miles north of Tucson.
A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club and the Western Land Project that the BLM’s environmental reviews of the deal’s consequences were inadequate.
The environmental groups argued that Asarco would not be held to the same standards for operations, planning, monitoring environmental impacts and remediation if it owned the land.
The BLM environmental impact report assumed that private or federal ownership of the land made no difference in how the mining would take place.
The three-judge ruled otherwise, with one judge dissenting.
It ruled that federal environmental laws required the BLM to compare in detail the likely environmental consequences that would occur with and without a land swap.
“The BLM has not done this. Indeed, it has not even attempted to do this,” Circuit Judge William A. Fletcher wrote.
Christopher Krupp, an attorney with Western Land Project, said he expects either the BLM or Asarco to ask the entire 9th Circuit to review the decision.
Asarco is under bankruptcy protection and the subject of a bidding war between former parent Grupo Mexico, based in Mexico City, and Mumbai-based Sterlite Industries Ltd.
A call to Asarco wasn’t immediately returned Sept. 14. A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management wasn’t aware of the ruling and couldn’t immediately comment.
A Sierra Club official praised the decision and the message it sends to the BLM.
“What frequently happens with land exchanges is that they are driven by whoever wants the public land so they can do what they want with it,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the club’s Grand Canyon chapter. “These are important lands and an important message to the BLM is that you need to do your jobs – you need to look out for the public interest and not just Asarco’s.”
The appeals court noted that the BLM ignored “strong objections” by the Environmental Protection Agency about the impacts of mining on the site that could be corrected by modifications to the plan.