CASA GRANDE — Once again, the proposed Resolution Copper mine has come into the crosshairs of federal action.
The potential to overturn a 2014 land transfer agreement has increased lobbying and public opinion efforts by both critics and supporters of the project.
Earlier this month, the Pinal Partnership group began a targeted public relations campaign on behalf of Resolution Copper, including urging members to write letters to several key members of the Arizona congressional delegation —Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, as well as Reps. Tom O’Halleran, Greg Stanton and Ann Kirkpatrick.
The letter says that bill H.R. 1884, which is part of the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, “would prevent mining from ever happening” and would “prevent the creation of thousands of American jobs, and billions in revenue to the Arizona economy.”
Representatives for Resolution Copper also released their own statement affirming an economic boost to the region and claiming that the project has been years in the making through public engagement and government review.
“We have strong support from local community leaders to build a responsible copper mine that would support more than 3,700 jobs, add $1 billion a year to Arizona’s economy and supply up to one quarter of the nation’s copper demand,” the statement reads. “Mining has co-existed with outdoor recreation, ranching and cultural activities in the Copper Triangle region for over a century, and we are committed to preserving the area’s unique heritage.”
At the same time, the Center for Biological Diversity released a statewide poll showing 74% of Arizonans oppose the Resolution Copper proposal. According to the poll, although the opposition trended toward both Democratic and urban residents, a majority of Republicans polled — 56% — were also against the mine.
Resolution Copper officials say they are planning to release their own polling numbers from August suggesting that “most Arizona voters were unfamiliar with Resolution Copper but after learning more, including what critics say, support for the project grew.”
The proposed copper mine, located near the town of Superior in northern Pinal County, would use a block-cave process to drill the copper ore over several decades. As a result of land subsidence, the area known as Oak Flat would become a crater several miles wide and 1,000 feet deep.
Critics of the mine say that the 2014 land transfer that was passed was snuck into a “must pass” bill at the last minute, after being repeatedly struck down in prior legislative sessions.
While little about the debate over the mine has changed, the past year has seen a dramatic back-and-forth over its future status, with the possible reconciliation bill just the latest in a struggle between strongly entrenched viewpoints.
A 3,000-page Environmental Impact Statement from the U.S. Forest Service, due out at the end of 2020, was instead released at the beginning of the year, just before President Donald Trump left office. The document was quickly rescinded in March by the incoming Biden administration. However, in June, the Justice Department threw out a lawsuit by the Apache Stronghold organization opposing the copper mine, claiming in a brief that the land transfer did not violate existing treaties.
While opposition to the mine has been largely about conservation and indigenous rights — the San Carlos Apache tribe says it has used the land for religious ceremonies for centuries — Resolution Copper has shifted its focus to touting the mine’s ability to provide necessary resources for a national renewable energy transition.
“This is a way for American-produced copper to go through the supply chain and end up in electric vehicles or solar panels,” said Hesston Klenk, manager of Communities and Social Performance for Resolution Copper. “Copper ore bodies are finite. In order for future supply to stay up with demand, new ore bodies have to be developed.”
However, Klenk also confirmed that means at present, the company doesn’t officially know where the copper will ultimately end up. Klenk said it was “most likely” going to stay in U.S. manufacturing due to the locations of national smelters and rising transportation costs.
Superior Mayor Mila Besich, who has long been a supporter of the Resolution Copper mine, reiterated that message during a local radio show appearance last week. Besich argued that communities in the Copper Corridor such as Superior, Globe and Winkelman played an outsized role in bolstering the economy with their supply of natural resources.
“We essentially run the world,” Besich said. “This region needs to rally up and demand more respect. Copper is driving the economy right now.”
Environmentalists argue that a combination of existing copper mines, possible reclamation sites and copper recycling should take precedence in copper production over any new mines.
Another major point of contention has also been about how much water the mining project would use. Water usage has become an extremely urgent issue in Arizona as a result of the decades-long megadrought and historic lows in Lake Mead and the Colorado River, forcing the region into mandated water cuts and threatening the viability of the Central Arizona Project as a continuing source of growth along the Sun Corridor.
Klenk pointed to Arizona’s “forward-thinking” water conservation strategies and said Resolution Copper has maintained nearly 75% of its water use would come from “banked” water that’s currently held in aquifers for future use.
While Resolution Copper’s estimates for water usage imply efficiency much greater than current mines in Arizona, Klenk said that new technology such as “ultra-thickening” and dry stack tailings would dramatically reduce the mine’s water footprint.
Versions of those technologies are currently deployed by Rio Tinto, Resolution’s parent company, in South American mines, but Klenk acknowledged those occurred at a smaller scale than what’s proposed at Oak Flat.
Unless dry tailing methods are used, the mine would create a large toxic tailings pond. Geologist James Wells testified before Congress in April that more conservative estimates of water use for the duration of the mine’s life span would require up to 7% of available groundwater in the east Salt River Valley.
“They are promising they will use a third less water,” said Randi Spivak, Public Lands Program director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “They don’t know if that’s true, but we do know we can't withdraw an unlimited amount of groundwater.”
Spivak, who is unequivocally against the project, said that the method of mining is only being pushed because it is the “cheapest” option but would be “devastating” to the environment.
Klenk also stressed that no matter what, the mine is a slow-moving project that will take years of further permitting and analysis before any copper is extracted.
“We are not actively mining or producing copper at this time,” Klenk said. “What Resolution has been doing for 20 years is studying the ore body and figuring out what the ore grades are, and what technical engineering is required.”
Klenk also said the company has no say currently in when the next draft of the EIS will be re-released.
“It’s frustrating,” Klenk said about waiting on the fate of the reconciliation package, and/or the embedded mining bill. “When the land exchange was passed there was a process defined and a schedule set. We are hopeful the EIS will be republished and the process will continue forward.”
An existing shaft at the Oak Flat site was originally drilled and used by the Magma Copper Company in the 1970s. Klenk said Resolution Copper had rehabilitated that shaft and sunk it farther, down to 7,000 feet below the surface.
Klenk argued that Resolution Copper’s work with the tailing impoundments from that original mine prove responsibility toward post-mine reclamation.
“When you drive through Superior, what used to be tailing piles has been recontoured to blend in,” Klenk said. “It doesn’t look like mountains necessarily, but it has natural vegetation that’s starting to take off now after the monsoons.”
Although it will probably not impact whether the mine is eventually greenlit or not, one of the strongest supports for the mine at the state level, Rep. Frank Pratt, R-Casa Grande, died earlier in September.
“We are deeply saddened by the news of Representative Pratt’s passing,” Klenk said. “Mr. Pratt understood mining and was a champion for rural Arizona. He served his constituents with distinction and always placed community first. His passing will be felt across the state of Arizona for many years to come.”
The reconciliation bill is expected to be voted on in Congress on Thursday.