For Immediate Release, January 7, 2021

Contact:

Randy Serraglio, (520) 784-1504, rserraglio@biologicaldiversity.org

Trump Administration Rushes to Trade Sacred Oak Flat to Rio Tinto for Massive Arizona Copper Mine

TUCSON, Ariz.— The U.S. Forest Service has announced it will release a final version of its environmental analysis of the proposed Resolution Copper Project and Land Exchange on Jan. 15, a year ahead of schedule. The proposed mine site is on Apache sacred ground in the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona.

“Oak Flat is far too important to be sacrificed for corporate profit,” said Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We can’t let a corrupt president destroy this precious place on his way out the door. We’ll do everything possible to protect Oak Flat.”

If the final environmental analysis is published, the federal government will have up to 60 days to transfer the land to international mining giant Rio Tinto, which plans to destroy it with a huge copper mine.

The Oak Flat land exchange is one of several environmentally damaging projects around the United States that the Trump administration is rushing to approve before the president leaves office.

Forest Service officials have admitted they are “getting pressure from the highest levels” of the Trump administration to rush the final environmental impact statement to publication. Calendar records obtained by The New York Times show Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross met with Rio Tinto executives at least three times and made a site visit to Oak Flat in October that included a speech to promote the proposed mine. That trip came just a week after the Forest Service announced it was accelerating the timeline for publication of the final environmental analysis by a year.

“This is the most corrupt presidential administration in modern U.S. history by any measure,” said Serraglio. “The betrayal of Oak Flat and Native people is typical of the kleptocracy we’ve been watching for four years now. It’s sickening that the Trump administration would commit this kind of cultural genocide for the sake of private profit.”

Background

Oak Flat has been used for centuries by Apache and other Native people for ceremony, sustenance and habitation, and ceremonies are still conducted there. Several tribes consider it sacred, including the nearby San Carlos Apache Tribe, which has opposed the proposed Resolution Mine for more than 15 years. Oak Flat is also a popular campground and recreation area in the Tonto National Forest with stunning scenery, world-renowned rock climbing, and important habitat for a diverse array of wildlife, including endangered plants, fish, snakes and birds.

Resolution Copper is jointly owned by two international mining behemoths. London-based Rio Tinto owns a 55% share and Australia-based BHP owns 45%. They propose to excavate an ore body 7,000 feet underground using unproven technologies to construct a block cave mine. The mine will eventually cause the surface above it to collapse into a crater at least a mile wide and 1,000 feet deep, which will completely decimate Oak Flat. The 1.4 billion tons of toxic waste the mine will produce will be dumped on thousands of acres of nearby wildlands, which will turn a vibrant landscape into an industrial wasteland.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower protected Oak Flat from mining more than 60 years ago, which prompted Rio Tinto to lobby Congress for a land exchange that would allow the company to circumvent the mining ban. That legislation failed 13 times in Congress until late Sen. John McCain — the largest recipient of Rio Tinto campaign contributions at the time — inserted a rider in a must-pass defense spending bill. The rider required the Forest Service to consummate the land exchange within 60 days of publishing the final environmental analysis, regardless of its conclusions.

Rio Tinto has been implicated in more than one environmental disaster over the years, most recently the destruction of aboriginal sites in Australia. Last May Rio Tinto blasted 46,000-year-old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in western Australia, some of the oldest evidence of human habitation on the planet, despite promises to aboriginal groups that the area would be protected. The subsequent controversy and upheaval resulted in the firing of the company’s CEO and two other high-ranking executives.

Rio Tinto's chairman, Scott Thompson, has said he is "determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again at a Rio Tinto operation." Yet it is about to do just that as it takes a major step toward the destruction of Indigenous sacred ground at Oak Flat.

Site of proposed Resolution Copper mine, Oak Flat, Ariz. Photo credit: Russ McSpadden, Center for Biological Diversity
Site of proposed Resolution Copper mine, Oak Flat, Ariz. Photo credit: Russ McSpadden, Center for Biological Diversity Images are available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Programs: