By Mila Besich-Lira
The U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on Thursday, Mar. 21 that included a hearing on the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act, the bill that would allow Resolution Copper to begin operations in Superior.
The bill, H.R. 687, was introduced Feb. 14 with bi-partisan support by CD-4 Rep. Paul Gosar (R) and CD-1 Rep. Kirkpatrick (D). The three-hour hearing included testimony from both representatives, as well as local supporters and detractors of the project.
Gosar has a seat on the committee and was able to ask questions of those testifying alongside Tucson Rep. Raul Grijalva, a member of the committee that has been a longtime opponent to the project.
Grijalva has opposed the project due to concerns voiced by Native American Tribes and environmental groups. He argued the project is “hemorrhaging local support” that it once had and questioned why Rio Tinto officials have not testified regarding this bill.
“We are not Wal-Mart greeters for Rio Tinto,” he said.
Kirkpatrick testified in support of the project, saying she was convinced there is a way to work together on the Superior mine project.
“Using the legislative process, we can develop a bill that not only brings jobs and economic stability to the region but includes measures to protect our water, land and air,” she said. “I will push for responsible provisions like these in a final version of this legislation and I am committed to a continuing dialogue with all stakeholders – constituents, tribes and local governments.”
Jennifer Krill, executive director for environmental special interest group Earthworks, testified against the project. “This land exchange bill would set a chilling precedent allowing for the revocation of similar land withdrawals such as parks, recreation areas, and wildlife refuges,” Krill said.
Earthworks is the umbrella organization that has been supporting the Concerned Citizens and Retired Miners group which is a local group who opposes the mining project. The group has been lobbying at a federal and state level to amend the 1872 Mining Law which determines the royalties that mining companies pay for extraction of minerals.
Krill argued that public lands such as Oak Flat that are set aside for recreation should remain protected for future generations.
“[The project] would destroy sacred sites for short terms gains,” she said. “Thirty years from now—when the mining jobs once again leave—the region will be much worse off because the landscape will be ruined.”
Mary Wagner, the Associate Chief for the United States Forest Service Department of Agriculture, said the Department of Agriculture is unable to support the bill. The department has consistently held this stance on the bill since the Obama Administration took office in 2009.
Locals testifying at the hearing included Pinal County Board of Supervisors Chairman Steve Miller, San Carlos Apache Tribe Chairman Terry Rambler and Superior Town Councilmember Soyla “Kiki” Peralta.
The Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution of support for the project and Miller argued the mining operation being proposed by Resolution Copper looks very different than the standard open pit mine.
“Based upon the County’s long-standing working relationship with Resolution Copper, we believe this project is going to be one of the most environmentally-sensitive mines in the nation, even the world,” Miller testified. “On behalf of our citizens, the Board will hold Resolution to the highest standard of environmental stewardship; and based on their actions so far, it is clear to me they intend to hold themselves to the same standard.”
The Town Council sent Councilwoman Soyla “Kiki” Peralta to testify before the committee. In February, the Superior Town Council reversed its decision to support the land exchange and the mine project.
She, along with Councilmember Gilbert Aguilar and Chairman of the Concerned Citizens and Retired Miners Roy Chavez, attended meetings with various members of Congress during their trip.
In her testimony, Peralta explained the council reversed its support due to concerns about the environment and questions on the NEPA permitting. She also said that Resolution Copper officials have not communicated with the town regarding their requests for information.
“The Town urges this committee to ensure that the concerns of all public interests are addressed prior to consideration of any federal land exchange,” she told the committee. “We believe you should protect these public lands for the public’s future use and preserve the unique opportunities for Arizonans—and especially Superiorites—that the Oak Flat area provides.”
Gosar asked Peralta about the Town accepting funding from Resolution Copper to cover payroll and pay bills for trash service as well as recall efforts against her.
Peralta replied that the town is “broke” and that recall attempts have been made against her before.
Gosar also entered into the Congressional record copies of the Superior Sun and the 400 signatures that were collected by residents that oppose the town’s decision to reverse its support.
“This land exchange provides the framework for much needed high-tech, high-wage jobs,” Gosar said after the hearing. “Receiving overwhelming support throughout the state, this bill is expected to substantially boost the Arizona economy.”
Peralta and Aguilar could not be reached for comment by press time.
To view the hearing in its entirety and read the full testimonies submitted to Congress you can visit the House of Representative’s Natural Resources Committee on the web at: http://1.usa.gov/ZSDpnf