The Native American community has a long, troubled history with mining interests, and today that history is catching up with us in Arizona. From a new push for uranium mining at the Grand Canyon to the ongoing battle over Resolution Copper, it’s not too much to say my home state tribes are under siege.
Many of us remember the decades of cancer deaths and cover-ups the Navajo Nation endured during the Cold War uranium boom. The risks today are different, but the story is the same: big mining interests want to cash in on minerals under some ground they don’t own, and the rest of us are going to pay the price.
Let’s start at the beginning. Resolution Copper has proposed to exchange 4,500 acres of land in northern Arizona for the 3,000 federally owned acres it wants to mine. The land the company wants includes not only Oak Flat Campground, a protected site since 1955, but the nearby Apache Leap area sacred to the San Carlos Apache Tribe.
Once you take a good look, it’s not even a good deal on paper. Current mining law says the public would receive no royalties on the estimated 1.6 billion tons of copper the company would extract and sell. Worse, Resolution Copper is jointly owned by troubled mining giants BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto. Both have long been accused of undermining native rights around the world to increase their profit margin. The latter, based in Australia and London, has faced a decade’s worth of especially credible allegations of human rights abuses. Neither cares about the local economy or has shown an interest in Indian sovereignty.
Rio Tinto’s role is especially disturbing. The company faces major potential sanctions in Sarei v. Rio Tinto, a case pending before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that focuses on its alleged abuses in Papua New Guinea. (The Australian news program Dateline in June aired credible allegations of the company’s role in a violent separatist movement in the province of Bougainville.) A company with such a dark history shouldn’t be trusted with the sensitive land Resolution Copper is seeking.
Resolution’s parent companies send their profits overseas and market their product to the highest bidder. This isn’t about providing copper for American industry—it’s about cashing in on public resources and leaving the rest of us to clean up the mess. Native communities don’t need a long memory to know what that means.
Then there’s the Grand Canyon. There are about 1.1 million acres of public forest land surrounding the canyon currently subject to a moratorium on new mining claims set by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Salazar said in June he would recommend withdrawing the land from new claims for 20 years by the end of 2011. This recommendation comes after two years of study by Interior Department land conservation and natural resource experts.
No one seems to want new mining up there. The withdrawal is supported by local tribes. It’s also supported by Coconino County, which includes the canyon, and just about everyone else. But the new Northern Arizona Mining Continuity Act of 2011 asks Congress to block the withdrawal. If it becomes law, mining prospects could open as soon as companies are ready, regardless of the ancestral Havasupai territory that would likely be affected. The likeliest company to file new claims is Canada-based Denison Mines Corp., in which South Korea’s largest energy producer owns a twenty percent stake.
The lawmakers responsible for this assault—Sen. John McCain and Reps. Paul Gosar, Jeff Flake, David Schweikert, Trent Franks and Ben Quayle of Arizona and Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch and Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, all Republicans—have wanted to open this land all along, and are now cynically selling their plan as an economic stimulus. In reality, it’s all about profits for a handful of uranium mining companies that don’t hire local labor, don’t keep their profits in the state (or in some cases the country) and don’t sell their product domestically.
The Havasupai, Hualapai, Kaibab-Paiute, Navajo, and Hopi have banned uranium mining on their land, for good reason. But we need to go further, which is why I introduced the RESPECT Act in this Congress to ensure that we require nation-to-nation consultation and signoff prior to any land trade impacting Native American nations or filing a bill in Congress to process those trades. Tribes should be an integral part of the decision-making process whenever federal activities could affect tribal life, and this bill makes that happen.
It’s unfortunate that mining has become such a controversial part of our economy and our community. I’m hardly opposed to mining on principle – I recognize the need for mineral goods in our economy. But they shouldn’t come at the expense of Native American rights, worker safety or the law.
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva has represented Arizona’s Seventh Congressional District since 2002. He co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus and is the ranking member on the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. Before his election to Congress, he served on Arizona’s Pima County Board of Supervisors and led the effort to create the landmark Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.