By Terri Jo Neff |
A 26-page report detailing multiple concerns with last year’s environmental review of Resolution Copper’s plans to mine in and around the Tonto National Forest means the company won’t be securing its required permits anytime soon.
Water was the subject of concern in the report prepared for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) by two hydrogeologists and a hydrologist who reviewed the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) issued in January 2021 as part of Resolution Copper’s permitting efforts under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Resolution Copper began nearly 20 years ago to develop a plan for underground mining roughly 60 miles east of Phoenix, near the town of Superior. It forecasts up to 3,700 direct and indirect jobs over the life of the project, with a payroll of $270 million at full production.
Supporters point to the benefits of improving U.S. domestic copper supply, which significantly lags behind Chile, Peru, and China. Resolution Copper could potentially produce as much as 40 billion pounds of copper over 40 years, with the ability to provide nearly 25 percent of America’s copper demand, the company says.
Most of the land around the mining site is government owned, although some private landowners in the area have wells which could be impacted by the mining, according to the 2021 FEIS report. Those potential private well impacts were not sufficiently addressed in the FEIS, according to the three BLM reviewers.
The water impact issue also raises the question of whether the concerns of private landowners and state water officials are trumped by the federal General Mining Law of 1872, which has long been viewed in Arizona as overriding any local and state interests.
Copper was first discovered in the greater Superior area in 1863 with the first known mine production starting in 1887. But by 1995 copper production ended in the area.
It was also in the mid-1990s that the Resolution Copper deposit was discovered. It would take several years before formal exploration and studies were undertaken.
Then in 2014 Resolution Copper began the process to obtain the necessary permits. That same year it obtained Congressional approval for a land swap which would give the company 2,422 acres of federally owned land in the Tonto National Forest within its project site in exchange for more than 5,300 acres of land Resolution Copper owned across Arizona.
But it would take until January 2021 for the land swap to receive regulatory approval. Then it took until June of this year for the company to prevail in a legal challenge when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected arguments on behalf of various Native American tribal members that the land swap would allow Resolution Copper to interfere with being able to worship at various sacred sites.
The Court also rebuffed legal claims that an 1852 treaty prohibited the mining activity, thus clearing the way for the land swap.
Resolution Copper says it has modified its project boundaries over the years after consultation with federal regulators and 11 Native American Tribes, including the San Carlos Apache. As a result, the company announced it “will forego portions of copper-bearing ore to minimize subsidence impacts” to important areas within the 4,600-acre Oak Flat.
The maximum expected impact area will be less than 1,800 acres at the end of the life of the mine, according to the company.
Resolution Copper will also “forego private ownership and mineral title” to the Apache Leap area at Oak Flat by permanently protecting it as a Special Management Area managed by the U.S. Forest Service. And the company has announced there will be “no physical impact” to another sacred site at Devil’s Canyon.
In the meantime, the U.S. Forest Service approved the company’s plan of operations and an initial environmental assessment in 2016. The agency then published a Draft Environmental Impact Statement in 2019 following dozens of public meetings and consultations, and countless hours spent by both company and government employees trying to satisfy myriad requirements.
Additional review and comments were taken into consideration for the Final Environmental Impact Statement released in January 2021. The FEIS identified alternatives to some of Resolution Copper’s plans and identifies suggested mitigation measures—required and voluntary—to “minimize, reduce, or offset impacts” from the proposed project.
It is that FEIS which has been subject since then to further public and federal reviews, including the one recently conducted by the water experts for BLM.
No deadline has been announced for releasing a new FEIS that would incorporate updated information based on the reviews.