Gaan Canyon

In the rainy season, natural pools form in Gaan Canyon, which runs adjacent to the site of a proposed copper mine near Superior, Ariz. The San Carlos Apache Tribe says its spiritual beings live within Gaan Canyon and the nearby Oak Flat area. Both would be affected by the proposed mine. 

Courtesy Matthew Nelson

Resolution Copper Mining is set to acquire 2,400 acres of protected land near Superior, almost a decade after the foreign mining company began its effort to obtain the valuable parcel.

On Friday the U.S. Senate approved the land swap, included in the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act. The legislation now goes to President Barack Obama's desk for signature.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was instrumental in inserting the controversial land exchange into the must-pass defense bill last week, praised its passage in a statement. 

"To maintain the strength of the most technologically-advanced military in the world, America’s armed forces need stable supplies of copper for their equipment, ammunition, and electronics," he said. “Most importantly, Resolution Copper represents a game-changer for an area of Arizona facing grave economic challenges."

The mine is expected to generate $61 billion over its lifetime and create 3,700 direct and indirect jobs. 

Opponents — including Native American tribes, officials and former miners in Superior, and conservationists — say the bill could not have passed Congress on its own merits. The land-swap legislation was first introduced in 2005 and more than a dozen versions have failed to pass Congress.

"I’m outraged," said Wendsler Nosie, former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. The tribe considers Oak Flat, the site to be mined, and nearby canyons to be among its sacred places. "Here McCain and other leaders preach about democracy, human rights, freedom of religion. They preach this to the whole world and yet they attach (the land-swap) to this bill. Where is their conscience?"

The bill paves the way for Resolution to access the massive copper deposit 7,000 feet under the land parcel, east of Superior.

Resolution's proposed method of mining — block-cave mining — is also controversial. Resolution has estimated it will result in a two-mile wide and 1,000-foot deep crater on the surface of Oak Flat.

Oak Flat includes the 760-acre Oak Flat Withdrawal Area, deemed off-limits to future mining by a 1955 land order signed by President Dwight Eisenhower. The bill overturns that order.

Resolution, jointly owned by U.K-based Rio Tinto Group and Australia-based BHP Billiton Ltd., said it plans to work with Native American tribes, and will try to hire locally and regionally whenever possible.

"Once the legislation is signed into law by President Obama, Resolution Copper will focus on the comprehensive environmental and regulatory review under (the National Environmental Policy Act), where there will be broad public consultation, government-to-government consultation with Arizona Native American tribes and a comprehensive valuation appraisal of the copper deposit as required by Congress," project director Andrew Taplin said in a statement issued Friday.

Some residents in Superior are eagerly anticipating an economic boost from the mine.

"This area is hurting for jobs. The people are hurting," said Pam Rabago, a longtime resident of Superior. She praised Resolution for its honesty and its contributions to local schools and businesses. "We need this mine and we need it to be Resolution Copper."

The town of Superior revoked its written support for the mine last year, saying it needed assurances that the town will benefit from the mine, that jobs will stay local and that their water supply will stay safe from contamination.

"We’re still going to keep negotiating our concerns," Gilbert Aguilar, Superior town councilman and a former miner, said on Friday. "You can say there’s going to be jobs. But put it in writing that they're going to be here."

COMPROMISES

Supporters touted compromises made in the latest version of the bill, but opponents say those concessions don't go nearly far enough. 

The latest version of the bill says Resolution Copper must conduct environmental studies before it can get title to the land parcel in Superior. But the bill still guarantees that the mining company ultimately gets the title to the land — regardless of the results of those studies.

If the land remained public, the mining project would be dependent on U.S. Forest Service approval and would have to complete the entire process required by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

Opponents say the title transfer should be predicated on approval from the Forest Service and the secretary of agriculture, who conduct the NEPA process. Otherwise, the studies are "an exercise in futility," Roger Featherstone, director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, said last week.

Nosie of the San Carlos Apache Tribe said he plans to reach out to U.S. military veterans and service members. He hopes to connect with them on what he considers to be the un-American nature of the way the land-swap went through Congress.

"This is what they sacrificed their life for. They cannot be in agreement with this," he said. He said he plans to petition the president for a veto and to continue protesting the land-swap, despite the bill's passage.

"This is not over," he said. "They can’t expect us to just lay back down and do nothing. No more. We’re gonna defend. It's going to bring in people of different colors. I know these people will stand with us."

Contact reporter Emily Bregel at 807-7774 or ebregel@tucson.com. On Twitter: @EmilyBregel