In October 2014, Nizhoni Pike, center, a young citizen of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, held a coming-of-age ceremony at Oak Flat, a sacred site in Arizona that will be affected by a controversial copper mine. Photo courtesy Anna Jeffrey for The Apache Messenger

Trump administration set to advance copper mine on sacred Apache site

Before Indian Country's attention turned to the #NoDAPL movement last summer, there was the fight to save Oak Flat, a sacred Apache site in Arizona, from a huge mining development.

Congress paved the way for the Resolution Copper mine through a controversial land swap that tribes tried to defeat. But now it's in the hands of the Trump administration and there are signs that the project has drawn sympathy from a team all too eager to please industry interests.

"A company shouldn't have to be hundreds of millions of dollars into risk money without knowing whether there is a real chance it is going to get approved," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Reuters, which said he specifically brought up the mine.

Officially, the Department of Commerce is not reviewing the mine. The environmental impact statement is instead being handled by the U.S. Forest Service because it would require transferring land within the Tonto National Forest to Rio Tinto, the foreign company behind the mine.

The land happens to include Oak Flat. That's where citizens of the San Carlos Apache Tribe go for ceremonies, gatherings and other important events.

"We stand for religious freedom, what the U.S. military is supposed to be protecting across the world," Wendsler Nosie Sr., a former tribal council member, wrote on Indianz.Com after the land swap became law as part of a military bill. "But within the U.S.’s own military funding bill, they ignore religious freedom, they ignore environmental protection, they ignore repatriation and create injustice."

The Forest Service is still in the relatively early stages of the environmental review process. A scoping report was issued in March after a year of development and after more than 133,000 comments were received, Reuters pointed out.

The next step would be a draft environmental impact statement, or EIS, to be followed by a final statement and then a record of decision. The process typically takes years but the Trump administration could fast-track it -- that's what happened with the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was approved without an EIS at all. A federal judge has since ruled that the EIS is necessary.

The mine, though, could be derailed if Congress passes H.R.2915, the Save Oak Flat Act. The bill, which repeals the land swap for the project, has bipartisan support but has not been granted a hearing.

Read More on the Story:
Massive Copper Mine Tests Trump's Push to Slash Regulation (Reuters 7/13)

Federal Register Notice:
Tonto National Forest; Pinal County, AZ; Resolution Copper Project and Land Exchange Environmental Impact Statement (March 18, 2016)

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