MAC: Mines and Communities

US Senate panel OKs compromise on Arizona land-for-mine swap

Published by MAC on 2010-01-19
Source: AP

"Swapping" public land for a huge hole in the ground might be thought a parlous option, even when everyone's agreed to it.

But, last month, a US Senate panel approved a deal to clear the way for just such a swap, despite strenuous opposition from Native Nations and environmentalists.

What's more, the company to benefit, according to one Democratic Representative, "has as bad a record as you'll find anywhere in the world."

If you still can't guess the company's name - read on!

Senate panel OKs compromise on Arizona land swap that could lead to massive copper mine

John Lowry, Associated Press Writer

17 December 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - A Senate panel approved a compromise bill on Wednesday that gives the secretary of agriculture authority to approve a land exchange near Superior that could clear the way for North America's largest copper mine.

The compromise would require an environmental study before Resolution Copper Co. could proceed, an element that conservation groups said was lacking in earlier versions of the bill.

The bill approved by the Energy and Natural Resources committee would give Resolution, a subsidiary of global mining giant Rio Tinto, three years to develop a mining plan.

The Department of Agriculture would then have three more years to conduct an environmental study before deciding whether to permit the land swap. The agriculture secretary would still have the discretion to accept or reject the swap.

If approved, subsidiary Resolution Copper Co. would get about 2,400 acres in the Oak Flat area of the Tonto National Forest in return for giving the government more than 5,500 acres of environmentally sensitive land throughout Arizona.

The agreement was reached in negotiations between the staffs of Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the chairman of the committee, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the committee.

McCain and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., had co-sponsored a bill that would have authorized the land swap to go forward without giving the secretary veto power. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., has introduced a similar bill in the House.

The proposed land exchange "presents a tremendous opportunity for land conservation and economic growth in Arizona," McCain said in a statement. He said the copper mine offers the state "a long-term investment for generations to come."

Opponents of the proposed mine said the compromise doesn't allay their concerns because it puts a congressional stamp of approval on a deal before environmental assessments are done. The area is near a key birding area, sites sacred to the San Carlos Apache and Fort McDowell Yavapai Indian tribes and rock climbing spots.

"We have asked them to do an analysis before the bill goes forward," said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter. "In effect, (the bill) says we're going to do the deal. You think that after three years of development and more time to study it that they're going to stop the deal?"

Environmentalists said the mine could contaminate water supplies and damage pristine scenic areas. Tribal leaders have also said they fear sites containing religious and cultural artifacts will be damaged by mining operations. Supporters of the mine said the project will create hundreds of well-paying jobs.

McCain has been trying for several years to win approval for the swap, which is expected to generate tens of billions of dollars in income for the mining company over the life of the mine. Earlier this year he placed "holds" on several of President Barack Obama's appointees to public lands posts in response to the administration's refusal to endorse the swap.

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said in a statement Wednesday that the Senate committee shouldn't have approved the legislation without first investigating Rio Tinto's human rights record.

"This company has as bad a record as you'll find anywhere in the world," Grijalva said.


Grijalva Calls For Full Investigation of Rio Tinto Human Rights Record Before Lucrative Mining Land Swap

Congressional Press Release

17 December 2009

(Congressional Documents and Publications/ContentWorks via COMTEX)-- December 16, 2009)

Washington, DC - Rep. Raul M. Grijalva today questioned the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's decision to vote on the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2009 without investigating the poor human rights record - including alleged illegal payments to a foreign army - of the bill's main beneficiary, mining conglomerate Rio Tinto.

The bill grants Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, a lucrative land swap in central Arizona that would give the company mining rights it values at approximately $140 billion over the mine's projected life span. The company would receive the title to land previously removed from mining activities by President Eisenhower's administration.

The land swap and mining proposal, Grijalva said, does not address a host of concerns from Arizona's Native American tribes, environmental groups and area rock climbing organizations. Rio Tinto's international human rights record "only adds to my already deep concerns," he said.

"Voting to pass this legislation blatantly ignores Rio Tinto's troubling human rights record," Grijalva said, pointing to the Norwegian government's recent decision to divest itself of approximately $890 million in Rio Tinto stock after deeming the company's activities overseas "grossly unethical." The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, by moving the legislation forward without greater consideration of Rio Tinto's worldwide business practices, has done "a grave disservice to our taxpayers and abused Congress' role as the guardian of public resources," he said.

Late last year, the Norwegian Minister of Finance announced that Rio Tinto "is directly involved, through its participation in the Grasberg mine in Indonesia, in the severe environmental damage caused by that mining operation." Because she saw "no indications to the effect that the company's practices will be changed," she said, the government decided it could no longer profit from the company's activities.

Just as seriously, Grijalva said, Rio Tinto is the subject of a recently approved class action lawsuit in Los Angeles on behalf of South Pacific islanders who say the company caused long-lasting environmental damage at its mine in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. The lawsuit also claims that Rio Tinto paid native workers less than whites and contributed to the island's violent civil war, which killed about 10 percent of the population.

The U.S. District Court in Los Angeles said in its ruling allowing the lawsuit to proceed that the alleged crimes - including crimes against humanity, war crimes and racial discrimination - were of such ''universal concern'' that it would hear them under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows U.S. courts to hear human rights cases centering on activity overseas. Islanders claim that Rio Tinto dumped billions of tons of toxic waste from the mine in unsafe areas, causing such extensive health and environmental damage that locals began an uprising that was crushed by troops funded by Rio Tinto and the Papua New Guinea government, which had a 17 percent stake in the mine.

"This company has as bad a record as you'll find anywhere in the world, yet the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is set to approve a deal that would grant it another $140 billion in mineral rights currently held on public land," Grijalva said. "We as lawmakers owe the public some due diligence before rushing to pass a bad bill in the name of job creation. The economy cannot be jump-started at the expense of the labor, civil rights and environmental laws we hold dear in this country."

Grijalva said the land swap should be considered in legal and ethical terms just as carefully as in economic terms.

"Like many of my colleagues in Washington, I support fair, sustainable economic growth," Grijalva said. "This deal is not fair, and Rio Tinto's business model is not sustainable. I cannot support this measure as currently written, and neither should the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee."

# # #

Adam Sarvana
Communications Director
U. S. Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (AZ-07)
(202) 225-2435 office


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