In a statement, Chairman Simon Thompson vowed the company would “never again” allow this type of destruction to take place. Rio Tinto has promised to act “in ways that are sensitive and responsive to the values and expectations of Traditional Owners and Indigenous communities.”
The company has an opportunity to make good on that commitment by preventing the destruction of a site considered sacred by Indigenous people here in the United States. Rio Tinto holds controlling interest in Resolution Copper LLC, co-founded with another Anglo-Australian firm, BHP. Resolution Copper is developing a mine in southeastern Arizona to exploit one of the world’s largest-known untapped copper deposits. The copper ore lays under a tranquil, high-elevation expanse known as Oak Flat.
To the nearby San Carlos Apache Tribe, Oak Flat is holy ground. There are ancient petroglyphs on some of Oak Flat’s rock walls. In addition to evidence of shelters and cooking fires, the area has yielded broken pottery, arrowheads, and stone tools. Oak Flat was also an Apache burial ground.
According to John R. Welch, Simon Fraser University professor of archaeology and former historic preservation officer for the White Mountain Apache Tribe, Oak Flat holds “the best set of Apache archaeological sites ever documented, period, full stop.”
Oak Flat (“Chi’Chil Bildagoteel” in Apache) sits within the Tonto National Forest — it is public land. For years following the 1995 discovery of the deposit, Resolution lobbied Congress to give it access to the copper. These efforts were supported by Arizona politicians including Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, a former Rio Tinto lobbyist.
Environmentalists, mining reform advocates, and a coalition of Native nations objected to the mine. Resolution’s attempts to obtain the land repeatedly failed. Finally, in 2014, a measure that would trade the land to Resolution was slipped into a “must-pass” military defense bill after 11 p.m. the night before it came up for a vote.
To effect the land exchange, Resolution still needs to complete an environmental impact statement (EIS). The company has said it expects to complete its EIS before the end of 2020. However, because of the way the legislation was drafted, the government will transfer the land title to Resolution within 60 days of the final EIS, regardless of its findings.
The company plans to extract the copper using a method known as block caving, which removes the ore from the base of the deposit. Block caving will cause the earth to collapse, eventually creating a crater in the landscape. Resolution predicts this subsidence crater would be up to two miles wide and a thousand feet deep. If the mine proceeds as planned, Oak Flat will collapse into this void.
Oak Flat, which was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2016, is spotted with old-growth trees and crisscrossed by natural springs. Bears and javelina roam through. Apaches come to Oak Flat to harvest medicinal plants and collect acorns to grind into flour for bread, soup, and dumplings. Oak Flat has also long been the site of religious ceremonies including the Sunrise Dance, a four-day ritual during which a girl who has recently begun menstruating reenacts the Apache creation myth.
“Chi’Chil Bildagoteel’s religious value to our prayers, our ceremonies, and in our family histories cannot be overstated,” Wendsler Nosie, the former San Carlos Apache tribal chairman told Congress at a House subcommittee hearing about the project in March. “The mine will cause a vast subsidence in the earth, destroying our sacred Oak Flat, our religion, and with it, our traditional way of life.”
When the land exchange legislation passed in 2014, Apaches began occupying Oak Flat. The San Carlos Apache Tribe has filed lawsuits and issued unanimous resolutions against the mine. The tribe and others have said the mine will alter the ecosystem, cause air and water pollution, and deplete the water supply in an already parched region. The mine will also create vast quantities of toxic waste, likely to be stored in perpetuity on national forest land.
Resolution’s supporters emphasize jobs and other economic benefits. But critics point to Arizona’s many ghost towns, communities that rose and fell along with mining’s boom-bust cycle. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) have introduced legislation to undo the land exchange. Resolution has plowed forward.
There is a long history in southeastern Arizona of corporate interests acting in concert with the government to strip native peoples of their land and expropriate natural resources. During the so-called Apache Wars, the U.S. Army fought to clear the region of Indigenous inhabitants to open the land for White settlers and to mine the silver, gold and copper beneath the desert floor.
“If I can but have troops to whip away the Apaches, so that prospecting parties can explore the country and not be in fear all the time of being murdered, you will, without the shadow of a doubt, find that our country has mines of the precious metals, unsurpassed in richness, number, and extent by any in the world,” Army Brig. Gen. James Carleton wrote to his superiors in 1863.
The United States established reservations, including the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, to contain Native groups, and then annexed sections of the reservations when minerals were discovered there. Laws were passed against Native religious practice. Native children were sent to assimilationist boarding schools and punished for speaking their own language.
The struggle for Oak Flat is the latest chapter in this history of conquest and suppression. The fight for Oak Flat pits the San Carlos Apache, one of the poorest communities in the United States, against the federal government and a multinational corporation that has already invested more than $1 billion in developing the proposed mine.
But now, Resolution Copper’s parent company has committed to working with Indigenous people. “We are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again at a Rio Tinto operation,” the company said in a recent statement.
By any measure, Oak Flat is such a site. Its history of human habitation stretches back millennia; it remains hallowed ground to Apache people. If Rio Tinto’s recent statements are more than platitudes and crisis management, it must ensure the preservation of Oak Flat. U.S. lawmakers need to hold the company to its word.