Land exchange tactics hurt Superior, pose environmental risk say Rio Tinto critics

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By Chase Kamp Superior Sun

Rio Tinto, the multinational mining company that owns the Resolution Copper Mine project in Superior, announced on Nov. 30, 2012 that a total of 400 employee and contractor layoffs would result from a project budget decrease of $150 million.

The company said the project’s viability hinges on a federal land exchange bill currently awaiting review in the Senate that would grant the project 2,422 acres of land in the Oak Flat campground outside of Superior.

Critics of the RCM say Rio Tinto is taking a risky regulatory shortcut with the land exchange bill and is subjecting the Superior workforce to industry ups and downs.

“Resolution Copper Mine is engaging in the same old scare tactics to pressure the U.S. Senate to act on bad legislation,” said Terry Rambler, Chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe in a written statement.

“Resolution Copper made the very same claim in 2007 when its President John Rickus told the Tucson Citizen it would not invest more money in the project unless the land swap was approved by Congress,” Rambler added.

Eleven versions of the land exchange bill have been drafted, the first in 2005 and the most recent in 2011 by then CD-1 Rep. Paul Gosar. Past bills have been thwarted by pushback from environmental advocates as well as Native American tribes opposed to the loss of sacred lands contained in the acreage.

Rodger Featherstone, Director of the Arizona Mining Reforms Coalition, said he believes the company is leveraging jobs to force action on the bill, which will not work. “There’s good reasons that [the Senate] hasn’t moved on the land exchange, because it’s a horrible piece of special interest legislation,” Featherstone said.

“There’s a difference between opposing the land exchange and opposing all mine operations outright,” Featherstone added. “Our official line is we oppose the land exchange but have no opinion on the mine because we don’t know the operation plan.”

However, many groups oppose the mine because of environmental concerns. They argue the push for a federal land exchange bypasses the usual regulatory process that most mines encounter.

“What Resolution and its political allies don’t mention is the land exchange sidesteps critical safeguards provided by other federal laws,” said Roy Chavez of Concerned Citizens and Retired Miners Coalition that opposes the land exchange.

Don Steuter, Conservation Chair for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter said there has not been accountability for potentially negative impacts to water resources and other environmental harm.

“Resolution Copper does not address the enormous costs, including environmental, that this mine will have,” he said.

Featherstone argued the copper market is slowing down and Superior’s economy is tied too heavily to the RCM, which will be subject to Rio Tinto’s navigation of the copper market’s ebbs and flows.

“[The company is] going to do that based on their bottom line, not what’s good for the town or the region,” he said.

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