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San Carlos Apache official says copper mine threatens sacred sites

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WASHINGTON – San Carlos Apache Chairman Terry Rambler told a Senate committee Wednesday that a massive copper mine proposed for Southeast Arizona would desecrate land his tribe considers sacred.

Rambler said Tonto National Forest land at the proposed Resolution Copper mine near Superior, Ariz., is used for ceremonial dances and to gather medicinal plants, comparing its significance for his people to that of Mount Sinai for Christians.

“Once it gets desecrated, it really infringes on our Apache way of life, which is our freedom of religion,” Rambler said in testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

He was testifying against a bill by Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake that would swap 2,400 acres of U.S. Forest Service land for 5,300 acres of environmentally valuable land owned by Resolution to clear the way for mining in the copper-rich region.

Supporters say the mine could ultimately provide up to 25 percent of the country’s copper supply, while creating as many as 1,400 jobs and generating $61.4 billion in revenues over its roughly 60-year life.

In a letter to the committee, Resolution Copper project director Andrew Taplin said the company would go through all environmental review procedures for the project and that the mine would help the area’s economy.

“We believe that the mine that we are planning to build in Superior, Ariz., will have an enormous, positive economic impact on the region, the state of Arizona and the United States,” Taplin’s letter said. “We believe this economic impact will be accomplished with the highest levels of environmental protection.”

But officials with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management both testified against the bill in its current form.

The bill would let the land swap go through before requiring the company to complete the environmental review process required by the National Environmental Policy Act, said Leslie Weldon, deputy chief of the Forest Service. And the bill does not require consultation with tribes on environmental issues, Weldon said.

Resolution Copper officials have said they will have to go through the entire environmental review process, regardless of when the land is exchanged, because the mine will still be surrounded by Tonto National Forest.

The mining company, jointly owned by BHP Billiton of Australia and British firm Rio Tinto, filed its mining plan of operations Wednesday with the Forest Service, starting a review process the company expects will take “many months,” according to a news release.

In a statement that Flake read in to the record, McCain said the bill has strong support in Arizona, where copper is one of the traditional “Five C’s” of the state’s economy.

“Arizona is the largest copper-producing state in the nation, which is why support for this legislation remains strong in my home state,” McCain’s statement said.

Rambler said the San Carlos Apache felt let down by Flake’s and McCain’s support for the bill, along with that of Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff. While the tribe has been consulted, he said it did not seem that their opinion was valued.

“Meaningful consultation means that we have the opportunity to change the outcome of any legislation,” Rambler said. “But in this case … we’re just like a check mark in the process.”

The Senate committee hearing came a week after a similar bill, which passed a House committee, was abruptly pulled from a floor vote before the full House without explanation.

While mine operations would be limited to Arizona, Rambler said he aimed to take a national approach to his opposition. He submitted a list of tribes from 25 states that opposed the land exchange, and he said the issue of respecting tribe’s sacred sites is a national issue.

Rambler also said he had talked to lawmakers from other states about opposing the bill on the grounds that it violates the tribe’s freedom of religion.

“Even on the Republican side, they’ve given us their ear because of the sacred sites issue,” Rambler said.