Judge denies Native American bid to block Rio Tinto’s copper project

Arial footage of Oak Flat and nearby Ga’an Canyon (Credit: Apache Stronghold)

A US judge denied a request by Arizona’s San Carlos Apache tribe to block the Trump administration from publishing an environmental study that would trigger the land swap needed by Rio Tinto to build the Resolution copper mine.

The non-profit community organization Apache Stronghold filed a lawsuit Tuesday in US District Court in Phoenix challenging the land
transfer on the grounds that the giveaway and eventual destruction of Oak Flat violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Apaches’ constitutional rights to religious freedom.

The mine is estimated to produce as much as 40 billion pounds of copper over 40 years

District Judge Steven Logan declined to issue a restraining order that would have prevented the government from publishing the environmental study as planned on Friday, a step that would start a 60-day countdown to transfer the land to Rio Tinto.

Tribal attorneys are required, under legal statute, to discuss the restraining order request with the government, but government attorneys did not return the tribe’s phone calls, the filing documents show. Because the two sides did not talk, Logan said he would not approve the restraining order.

The judge added that even if the study is published, it does not necessarily mean the land swap will go through, although the US Congress and then-President Barack Obama approved in 2014 a plan to let Rio exchange land it already owns for land above the copper. The judge has set a series of hearings on the matter over the next two weeks.

Lawyers for tribal members say they are looking forward to the hearings and hope the judge will invalidate the environmental study, if it is published, or rule the 2014 act by Congress unconstitutional.

On Thursday, tribal members filed a property lien on the land, arguing the government illegally occupied the land – known as Oak Flat – for more than 160 years and has no right to give it to anyone.

Resolution is one of the largest undeveloped copper deposits in the world and has an average grade of roughly 1.5% copper. Ore production from the operations could reach approximately 120,000 tonnes per day, according to Rio’s Resolution Copper subsidiary.

The mine is estimated to produce as much as 40 billion pounds of copper over 40 years and could supply a quarter of US copper demand.

(With files from Reuters)

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