Congress Approves Arizona Mining ‘Land Swap’: Job Bonanza or Environmental Disaster?

Kari Lydersen

Congress approves proposed mining deal

The U.S. House of Representatives voted yesterday to approve a bill that proponents say would create thousands of jobs in an economically struggling part of Arizona — and opponents say would forever change a fragile area renowned for its beauty and held sacred by various Native American tribes.

The bill would facilitate a land swap” giving more than 2,400 acres of federal land including a campground known as Oak Flat to the multinational mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton in exchange for other land that those companies own. The land being offered by the mining companies includes stretches of the ecologically important San Pedro River, but critics of the deal say it doesn’t approach the economic, cultural and ecological value of the land the government would be handing over.

The Senate will now take up the issue. Since 2005 various versions of the bill have failed to pass and it may flounder in the Democratic majority Senate. But Arizona Republican Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl support the measure and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D‑Nev.) is generally known as a supporter of mining who may be open to a deal on this issue. House Democrats largely opposed the bill approved yesterday, in part because Rio Tinto is a partner with the Iranian government in its uranium mine in Namibia.

The companies want to mine what they describe as one of the world’s largest copper deposits. It is near the small town of Superior southeast of Phoenix in a region long known for copper, 200 miles north of the Cananea mine in Mexico that has been the site of infamous labor strife for more than a century.

The mining companies say their planned Resolution Copper mine will create 1,400 permanent jobs and 3,000 construction jobs. The Arizona Republic, which editorialized in favor of the land swap bill, reported:

Resolution Copper said most of those workers will be Arizonans. The mine will also create about 2,300 non-direct jobs, including contractors who supply fuel, tires, cement and steel, company officials said… New businesses, such as restaurants, also would be expected to open to serve the workers, according to a report commissioned by the company.

Proponents including Rep. Paul Gosar, the bill’s sponsor, and Arizona Republican Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl, say the opportunity is too good to pass up in an area that lost many mining jobs over past decades as mines shut down, most importantly the Magma mine that closed in 1982. In 2008 Jonathan Thompson reported for High Country News:

Mining did return for a brief flurry from 1990 to 1996, but things would, indeed, never be the same. After the 1982 shutdown, most of the younger miners fled to Nevada, where the industry’s big open-pit mines weathered lower metal prices. In 1970, 5,000 people lived in Superior; by 1990, the population had plummeted to fewer than 3,500. The town died,” says Daniel Avenvano, who worked in mines for 25 years, both in Superior and in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

But opponents of the mine say it could destroy the area’s promising if still small tourism, rock climbing, art and film economies. Thompson wrote:

There was a time when Western mining towns would have loudly welcomed the return of the industry. But things have changed since the last bust, and like a jilted lover being courted anew by a long-lost ex, the old mining towns are wondering if they still have room for mining in their new cultures and economies.

The Arizona Mining Reform Coalition said in a recent letter to supporters:

Oak Flat receives tens of thousands of visitors each year who enjoy the peace and beauty of this landscape, while at the same time infusing needed tourist dollars into the surrounding area of Superior and Globe.

Democratic Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, a longtime opponent of the mine, introduced an amendment that would have mandated the mine’s operations center be located in Superior to ensure more job creation – but that amendment along with two others proposed by Democrats failed. Based on past experience and the companies’ records, many opponents fear the promised job numbers are significantly inflated and that jobs would not go primarily to local residents and would be largely nonunion. On the House floor Democrat Ed Markey (D‑Mass.) and others raised the issue that automation in the industry would mean relatively few jobs.

Rio Tinto is known for clashing with unions around the world. Last year unions nationwide rallied with members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in a bitter lockout at a Rio Tinto borax mine in California.

Strikes are frequent at the world’s largest copper mine in Chile, the Escondida mine co-owned by Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton.

Rio Tinto also recently took legal action against striking uranium miners in Namibia, at the mine it co-owns with the Iranian government. And earlier this month security forces opened fire on striking miners at a Freeport McMoRan-Rio Tinto gold and copper mine in Papau, Indonesia, killing one and injuring six, the latest episode in decades of alleged human rights abuses and killings linked to the mine.

Even those with a mining past oppose the Arizona land swap and proposed mine — the local Retired Miners Coalition is against it. The Arizona Mining Reform Coalition’s letter says:

What H.R 1904 does is give away our public lands and natural resources for lands of much lesser value on the promise that these two foreign mining companies, Rio Tinto and BHP, would be good corporate citizens. If this bill should become law, these companies would laugh all the way to the bank and the American public would end up holding a bag of environmental degradation and empty promises.

Supporters have billed the mine as a secure” source of domestic copper, crucial to countless other industries, but opponents point out that the companies will sell the copper on the world market to the highest bidder. Quoted in The Arizona Republic, Florida Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings also warned that there is nothing to stop Rio Tinto from bringing foreign workers in from its home base in Australia or other countries. Hastings said:

When a lot of these foreign companies come in, they bring their workers with them…How does that create jobs?

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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