The House approved a federal land swap Wednesday that would clear the way for creation of North America’s largest copper mine in Arizona, despite opposition from the Obama administration and complaints that the proposed mine operator had partnered with Iran and faces allegations of human rights violations.
The swap would trade 2,400 acres of federal forest land in southeastern Arizona for about 5,300 acres of environmentally sensitive land throughout the state controlled by a subsidiary of global mining giant Rio Tinto. The bill passed the Republican-controlled House on a 235-186 vote.
GOP lawmakers and business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Mining Association, say the proposed mine, 70 miles east of Phoenix, would pump billions of dollars into the Arizona economy and help create nearly 4,000 mining-related jobs.
The Obama administration and many Democratic lawmakers opposed the land swap, saying an environmental review should be completed before the exchange is made.
Democrats also complained that the mining company will not have to pay royalties to the U.S. government for lucrative mineral rights that could be worth billions of dollars. And they said the proposed mine site contains sacred Native American artifacts and important cultural areas that would be displaced by the mine.
But their arguments were overridden by Republicans who said the mine would be a major job creator and would help reduce imports of copper used in a wide range of items, including cars, lamps and computers.
“There is no excuse for the United States to depend on foreign nations for our minerals supplies when we have ample reserves that could be developed here at home,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Hastings and other Republicans dismissed Democratic complaints that the bill short-circuited necessary environmental reviews. The mine project cannot proceed without a battery of federal environmental reviews and consultation with Native American tribes, Hastings said.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., the bill’s sponsor, said the land swap “does not pre-empt anything,” such as the Antiquities Act, the National Environmental Policy Act or other laws.
But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the environmental review should be conducted now, when the U.S. government has the most leverage over the project. Once land that now is part of the Tonto National Forest is turned over to private control, the government’s ability to require changes and enforce the law “is really limited at best,” he said.
Under the plan, first proposed in 2005, a Rio Tinto subsidiary would gain access to more than 2,400 acres of federal forest land thought to contain vast resources of high-grade copper, potentially worth billions of dollars.
In exchange, about 5,300 acres of environmentally sensitive and recreational land throughout Arizona would be transferred to federal control, including 3,000 acres on the lower San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona and 940 acres to be added to the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch southeast of Tucson. The land is controlled by Resolution Copper Co., a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, a London and Australia-based company that operates mines worldwide.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said the House vote rewarded a company that partners with Iran to mine nuclear material, a reference to a uranium mine in Namibia owned by Rio Tinto in which Iran has a minority stake.
Rio Tinto also faces a lawsuit in the U.S. claiming that it aided the government of Papua New Guinea in genocide and war crimes in the late 1980s. A decade-long civil war began after islanders sabotaged a copper mine that islanders said was fouling the environment. Many people were killed in violent clashes with the Papua New Guinea military.
On Tuesday, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed claims of racial discrimination and crimes against humanity to go forward.
Bruce Richardson, a spokesman for Rio Tinto, said Wednesday that the company will “vigorously defend ourselves against these improper claims.”
Separately, Grijalva, Markey and other Democrats complained that under current law, the mining company will not have to pay any royalties to the U.S. government for mineral rights that could be worth as much as $7 billion.
“A foreign-owned company doing business on U.S. public lands is basically getting a blank check on extraction (of copper) and a green light from Congress to go ahead and begin this without any return on the money,” Grijalva said.
Jon Cherry, a vice president of Resolution Copper, said the mine could generate as much as $61 billion in economic benefit for Arizona “without the need for one dollar of federal stimulus.”
The legislation hasn’t yet come up in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it’s expected to encounter greater resistance.