On December 19, 2014, President Obama signed the National defense Authorization Act into law. The bill contained the Oak Flat land exchange. This particular version of the land exchange was the 13th since the bill was first introduced in Congress by convicted former Congressman, Rick Renzi in 2005. Senator Flake, who previously worked for Rio Tinto at their uranium mine (co-owned by the Iranian government) in Namibia, acknowledged what we all knew, the bill could not pass the US Congress on its own merits.
This is the culmination of 10 years of work by Arizona’s Senators and some Congressmen at the behest of Rio Tinto and represents a huge Christmas present for the international mining giant. However, the bill’s passing is a lump of coal in the stocking of all Arizonians. Senators McCain, and Flake did their best to subvert the will not only of Native American Tribes, conservation organizations, the Superior Town Council, and others, but the will of the United States Congress who has forcefully rejected the land exchange for nearly 10 years.
This new version of the bill does not turn over Oak Flat to Rio Tinto until 60 days after the publishing of a Final Environmental Impact Statement. While this represents a major departure from normal procedure and limits any ability to mitigate or say no to the proposed mine, it does allow additional time, as the US Forest Service will go through the motions of conducting the process mandated by the National Environmental Policy act (NEPA). This process will take years and will allow opportunities for this mistake to be rectified. Until that time, Oak Flat remains public land owned by all Americans free to be enjoyed and celebrated by all.
Rio Tinto and its supporters would like to think that this dirty underhanded deal will make our opposition go away, but nothing will be further from the truth. Rio Tinto has finally shown how much it cares for the rule and process of law. Like a schoolyard bully, Rio Tinto threw a tantrum until it finally got its way. But in the process, the company showed its true colors. Folks from all walks of life and from across this great nation and indeed, the world, are rising up against this miscarriage of justice and are clamoring to help us protect Oak Flat.
The passage of the land exchange marks the end of but one phase of our struggle to protect Oak Flat. We have many avenues to protect Oak Flat and we will travel them all until we succeed.
Interior Secretary Jewell was very disappointed in the passage of the land exchange and said, “I am profoundly disappointed with the Resolution Copper provision, which has no regard for lands considered sacred by nearby Indian tribes. The provision short circuits the long-standing and fundamental practice of pursuing meaningful government-to-government consultation with the 566 federally recognized tribes with whom we have a unique legal and trust responsibility.”
“Although there are consultation requirements in the legislation, the appropriate time for honoring our government-to-government relationship with tribes is before legislating issues of this magnitude. The tribe’s sacred land has now been placed in great jeopardy.”
In a guest editorial in the Arizona Republic, James Anaya, the former United Nations Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, condemned the passage of the land exchange, saying, “it represents a shameful circumventing of democratic process in the face of environmental concerns and potential violations of the religious and cultural rights of the Apache people.”
These and many other powerful and well-spoken people are clear in their displeasure over Rio Tinto’s actions.