By Jessica Goad, Manager of Research and Outreach, Public Lands Project, Center for American Progress.
The Resolution Copper Company, owned by the large multi-national mineral conglomerates Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, is pushing a bill in Congress that would give them federal land in southeastern Arizona and allow mining of one of the largest known copper deposits in the world. In return, the company would give back a plot of land to the federal government. The Resolution Copper land-exchange bill has a blatant loophole, delaying any environmental impact statement for mining these lands until after the land exchange is completed.
That would mean that after the deal is done and the tailings pond leaks, like it did at the Clayton Silver Mine in Idaho, or after major fish kills, like the ones in the Alamosa River due to cyanide leaching from the Summitville gold mine in Colorado, we could say that the too-late environmental analysis revealed a threat. That’s not the point of our environmental laws, which recognize that the value of clean air and water needs to be considered before the government sells off public resources to private interests.
However, during a hearing on Tuesday, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), the sponsor of the bill, pulled a bait and switch by focusing on the land that would be conserved, rather than the parcel that would be given to the mining company. Gosar told Mary Wagner, Associate Chief, U.S. Forest Service, that allowing a mining company to plunder public land is “restoring the ecological balance”:
GOSAR: Now I’m a big steward of my environment so I just heard something also from my friend on the other side, that value for the San Pedro River. Ms. Wegner, could you put a value on that as an ecosystem, could you put a price for me? Give me a price in dollars.
WAGNER: I think both the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service/Department of Agriculture have testified to the importance of the non-federal parcels, the ecological values and the important of these properties. No, I couldn’t put a price on it.
GOSAR: They are almost infinite, because it’s a giving process, we’re restoring the ecological balance within the whole ecosystem. That is unbelievably much more valuable.
On the one hand, his bill would set aside 5,300 acres of land currently owned by Resolution Copper for conservation purposes.
On the other hand, as written, Gosar’s bill says the extent of impacts would not be known until too late because the company would not be required to undergo environmental review or even submit a plan of operations until after the land exchange takes place. Questions like where the mine tailings would go, where large amounts of water would come from, and how erosion and subsidence from a gigantic underground mine would be dealt with won’t be investigated until the deal is signed, sealed, and delivered.
Mineral development is an appropriate use of public lands, but not when it comes in the form of a hasty land exchange that circumvents environmental laws. Unlike what Gosar seems to think, environmental stewardship in this country is based upon making sure that the public is involved in decisions that may affect its health and environment. As Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) said today, “this bill short-circuits fundamental good government policies.”