Sacred and Profane

A new film examines a critical Arizona mine fight

Picture this: A foreign mining company, its finger on the pulse of rising copper prices, announces plans to open a vast new operation on the fringes of an Arizona city. The company and its political water-carriers are pushing the employment angle, though the quantity and quality of jobs any mine might produce are questionable.

To sweeten the pot, mining magnates are offering various and badly needed amenities to the community, and paying a tidy sum for spin doctors to paint a rosy picture. Residents are bitterly split over the issue.

Sound familiar? Perhaps. But this isn't the fight unfolding in the Rosemont Valley south of Tucson. Instead, it's rocking the little town of Superior, 100 miles to our north. And the mining company in question is not Canadian-owned Augusta Resource Corporation—which hopes to gouge a pit in our own Santa Rita Mountains—but rather the Resolution Copper Co., owned by global mining titans BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto.

There are differences, too. For instance, the so-called Resolution Mine, slated to become the nation's biggest copper operation, boasts the fierce support of Arizona's two Republican senators. Then there's the fact that Resolution is seeking control of 2,400 acres in the Oak Flat Campground area through a federal land swap. Or that Oak Flat is considered sacred by the San Carlos Apache Tribe. As it happens, their sacred site was provided "permanent" protection from mining by President Dwight D. Eisenhower some 50 years ago.

Southern Arizonans also have some skin in this game: The proposed swap includes land near an Audubon research area south of Tucson.

Still, the Superior mine fight has largely hovered below the radar for folks outside of the immediate area; a new film by mine opponents aims to change that. The Great Oak Flat Land Giveaway, directed by Bryan O'Neal, includes interviews with tribal members and townspeople, who explain why they oppose the mine planned for this gorgeous corner of nature.

Much of the opposition comes from residents who've seen firsthand how mines can whipsaw a community. Although Superior has been in the mining business since the late 1800s, two mine closures in recent years nearly brought the town to its knees.

Since then, community leaders have struggled to steer their town away from relying on the single—and unreliable—economic pillar of mining by boosting its tourist trade and other industry.

"The mine closed in 1982, and 1,400 people were laid off in one day," says Roy Chavez, a former miner and three-term mayor of Superior. "It reopened in 1989, and operated to 1996. The workforce was about only 400, but because of technology and the new mining methods, they were producing as much or more product as (1,400 workers) did before."

If people think a new mine is going to mean plentiful jobs, he says the down-sized reopening in 1989 should make them think again. "As reflected in the economic base of our community, it didn't change things. We lost half our population since 1982, when it dropped from 6,000 to about 3,200, which is what it has remained."

Since the mine would be outside of the city limits, says Chavez, it would only pay property taxes to the school district, and those taxes would likely be rock-bottom. "With the Arizona mining law, which is one of the weakest laws in the United States, and with the (federal) 1872 mining law, companies are able to pretty much devalue their land as mine property."

But economics are only one of the concerns. Another is that massive underground mining could cause subsidence in the land above.

This is one high-stakes game, and Resolution Copper is attempting to couch its bet with money, says Roger Featherstone, director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, and the film's producer. "The company has not only done a good job of spin, but they've also done a good job of buying off the town council. Right now, there's $410,000 (from the mining company) in the town's budget for the next year. That money would come from Resolution Copper, but it's contingent on passing the land exchange.

"And you're looking at a town that right now is about $250,000 in the hole. If you were a city official, and the company wanted to give you this money, what would your answer be?"

Of all the issues surrounding this proposed mine, none is more emotional than the potential desecration of a Native American sacred site. In June, the National Congress of American Indians officially opposed the Resolution Copper land swap legislation. Two months later, Apache leaders met with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at the Oak Flat Campground.

But there could be a roadmap out of this standoff—or at least a precedent set by Glamis Gold Ltd., a mining company which in the 1990s wanted to establish a gold mine at Indian Pass in Southern California. The property is also home to Dream Trails, where Quechan tribal members go to seek visions.

With help from members of California's congressional delegation, the tribe beat back the mining effort. A similar victory occurred in Montana's Valley of the Chiefs, where an oil company wanted to explore in the area, which contains sacred pictographs dating back 1,000 years.

But mine opponents aren't holding their breath—particularly since Sens. John McCain, Jon Kyl and now District 1 Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick are pushing the mine-swap measure as a jobs bill.

Featherstone calls that laughable. "How can this be a jobs bill," he says, "when the company itself admits that they don't plan on mining for another decade, because the technology to mine at that depth doesn't yet exist?"

However, David Salisbury, president and CEO of Resolution Copper, says the proposed land swap will indeed add to new jobs right away.

"The primary focus in realizing passage of the land-exchange legislation leads to preserving the 200-plus well-paying jobs we have now," Salisbury wrote in an e-mail. "Subject to enactment of the land exchange, and as we advance the work that will support the (federal environmental review or EIS) process, we anticipate a combined contractor and staff workforce of up to 400 people over the next four-year period.

"Upon completion of the land exchange and a favorable record of decision from the EIS, mine construction will begin, and we will ramp up our workforce to support project development. We stand by the figures provided in the independent economic study, which cites the creation of (more than) 2,600 new jobs."