An Arizona House Democrat reintroduced legislation this week to permanently protect a sacred Apache site in the state from a mining company that’s planning to build a copper mine there.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva introduced the Save Oak Flat Act on Monday to provide permanent protection for Oak Flat, or Chi’chil Bildagoteel, in the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. The congressman also introduced the act in 2015, 2017 and 2019; it’s never made it to a House floor vote.
Oak Flat, utilized for religious and traditional ceremonies, is considered a sacred place for many Apache tribes, including the San Carlos Apache, which has been fighting the Resolution Copper project for years. Led by mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP, Resolution Copper would use Oak Flat land for an underground mine.
“I will work to move this bill forward, this land is going to be protected, and we’re going to establish that you don’t get to push around Native American communities just because you can make a profit,” Grijalva, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement on Monday.
The reintroduction of the bill comes two weeks after the Biden administration, facing mounting pressure from activists, put the brakes on a plan to transfer more than 2,400 acres of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper as part of a land exchange that was completed during the waning days of the Trump administration.
The land exchange was paused by the US Forest Service at the direction of the US Department of Agriculture, which said it wanted more time to review the concerns raised by tribes and the public, as well as to determine the mining project’s impacts on environmental resources and to “ensure the agency’s compliance with federal law.”
The department also cited President Joe Biden’s recent “Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relationships,” which, it says, “counsels in favor of ensuring the Forest Service has complied with the environmental, cultural, and archaeological analyses required,” according to the USDA.
The land transfer was initially authorized under a late-night rider to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015. Grijalva’s bill would repeal the section of that law that authorized the land transfer.
The legislation would withdraw Oak Flat from being affected by public land laws and all laws pertaining to mining or mineral materials. It aims to ensure Oak Flat is preserved forever and to secure the land from any mining or digging. The bill highlights that Oak Flat is a place of worship for Native tribes in the region, and that Oak Flat is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The planned mining on Oak Flat would be conducted through an underground method called block caving. Through this method, a section of ore is undercut, causing it to collapse under its weight, according to a spokesperson for Resolution Copper. The copper deposits range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet below the surface, according to Andrew Lye, Resolution Copper project director. The project is estimated to produce as much as 40 billion pounds of copper over 40 years.
But the project would come with significant negative environmental impacts, according to Grijalva’s bill, which says the mining would destroy the sacred site.
The legislation says the project would also deplete and contaminate “precious water resources; and require significant quantities of water, which will likely affect the local hydrology, including the underlying aquifer; and result in polluted water that will seep into drinking water supplies.”
In response, a Resolution Copper spokesperson said, “Resolution Copper has been monitoring surface and groundwater for more than a decade, and we will comply with all groundwater and surface water quality standards.” The company didn’t comment as to whether the mining would destroy the sacred site.
The spokesperson told CNN the company recognizes “the importance of balancing these outcomes with ongoing consultation with local communities and Native American Tribes to guide further shaping of the project, minimize impacts and build on the benefits it will deliver.”
The Apache believe Oak Flat is holy ground because it’s where angels and deities in their religion live. Sacred water, plants and ingredients that can’t be reconstructed or replaced are also on the land, according to Apaches.
“It’s really our identity, our religious identity, before we were exiled out of these areas (out of Oak Flat),” said Wendsler Nosie Sr., a former chairman of the San Carlos Apache tribe.
“It’s like Mount Sinai for us. If it’s destroyed the way it will be, a people and a religion will forever be destroyed,” he added.
Apache groups have taken their fight to protect Oak Flat to the courts, filing three suits against the federal government earlier this year. All are still being litigated.
“This isn’t the United States’ land to give away. This is a great opportunity for us to begin reconciliation, which is the theme of the Biden administration,” Michael Nixon, an attorney for Apache Stronghold, one of the groups that filed a lawsuit, told CNN.
There are “unresolved reconciliations to be made with Native Americans; this is an opportunity for leaders in Congress and for President Biden, his administration, to change and reconcile the inhumane and immoral treatment of Apaches and all Native Americans,” he said. “This is a golden opportunity, not a copper one.”
Apache Stronghold’s lawsuit, filed in January, argues the US doesn’t have the power to transfer Oak Flat because the federal government doesn’t own the land, under the 1852 Treaty of Santa Fe, which guarantees land, property and rights in Oak Flat to Apache nations.
Nixon applauded the congressman’s legislation, saying: “There’s a justice endeavor to Rep. Grijalva’s act and it is welcomed, and it’s admirable.”
CNN’s Devan Cole contributed to this report.