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Congress takes another look at Resolution Copper land swap

WASHINGTON – A House subcommittee on Tuesday will take up the latest iteration of the embattled Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act — the 10th try in the last six years.

Since 2005, five Arizona congressmen have introduced 10 versions of the proposal to swap thousands of acres of federal land in Pinal County for thousands more owned by Resolution Copper throughout southeastern Arizona.

Eight bills died in committee. One made the Senate legislative calendar but never came up for a vote.

"That bill probably would've been a landmark bill, setting precedents for land exchange," said Superior, Ariz., Mayor Michael Ong Hing, who has twice testified in Washigton for the bills. "But they blew it."

Freshman Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, who introduced version No. 10 last month, said in a prepared statement that this one can pass.

"This initiative has languished far too long," he said. "I am confident I have put together legislation … that will pass through the House of Representatives quickly and efficiently."

Gosar calls it a jobs bill, saying the land exchange would create more than 1,000 jobs and have an estimated annual economic impact of $800 million.

A report commissioned by Resolution Copper estimated the total economic impact of the mine they hope to open after the exchange to be $46.4 billion. It says the mine would be active for 66 years.

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Besides swapping 2,422 acres of the Oak Flat federal parcel in northeast Pinal County for 5,344 acres of land from the copper company, the bill gives Superior the option to buy up to three parcels of land from the government at market value.

Those elements of the proposal have remained largely unchanged from the first version. Along the way, the bills have faced challenges on various fronts.

The land that Resolution Copper would receive is important to Native American culture.

Conservation groups worried that the mining project would cause severe environmental damage and that the land the government would get in exchange is not of much value.

Rock climbers fought for concessions so they wouldn't lose access to some of their favorite spots.

Hing said environmental assessment restrictions called for by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, in the 2009 version of the bill killed it.

Perhaps the worst blow was former Rep. Rick Renzi's extortion indictment and charges related to the land exchange.

The 1st District Republican introduced the first House version of the bill. Federal prosecutors allege he tried to force Resolution Copper to buy land from his business associate in exchange for his guarantee the bill would pass.

The company balked, and Renzi was indicted in February 2008. The investigation seemed to cool interest in the land exchange until Gosar introduced the latest version.

While the bill hasn't changed drastically since 2005, there are some differences in Gosar's version, the first in two years.

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The 2,422 acres Resolution Copper would get under Gosar's version is 16 acres more than in the 2009 version. The government would get 5,344 acres to add to existing conservation areas, 222 acres less than before. And a three-tiered environmental assessment process is absent from Gosar's bill.

Although the bill is being heard just a month after its introduction, opponents aren't impressed.

"Paul Gosar's bill has taken a huge turn for the worse," said Roger Featherstone, director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition. He has been fighting what he calls "special interest legislation" since the first version and will testify Tuesday.

Featherstone is concerned Gosar's version eliminates the need for approval under the National Environmental Policy Act and doesn't include funding to rebuild affected campgrounds.

But Resolution Copper has slowly won over other opponents.

The company has been working with Audubon Arizona for about five years on conservation issues related to land the government would get in the exchange. While not every concern has been addressed, Audubon Arizona is impressed.

"They seem to have shown a willingness to be environmentally responsible, to the best a mining corporation can be," said Tice Supplee, the organization's director of bird conservation.

Resolution Copper has also negotiated with rock-climbing groups, because concessions to climbers are no longer part of the legislation. The Queen Creek Coalition of rock-climbing groups has not come out in support of the land exchange, but it is not opposed to it anymore, either.

"The way they're going now, I think we're going to end up with an equitable solution," said Paul Dief, the coalition's vice chair.

For some, it simply comes down to economics.

Hing has been waiting for the land exchange bill to revitalize Superior since the first version in May 2005. "We've suffered since the (Magma) mine shut down, and we're still waiting to recover," said Hing.

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Jennifer A. Johnson/Cronkite News Service

To establish a copper mine, Resolution Copper must get congressional approval for swapping parcels elsewhere in Arizona for about 2,400 acres in and around Oak Flat, which lies in the Pinal Mountains just east of Superior.

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Land swap facts

The company: Resolution Copper Co. is a limited liability company owned by Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, two of the world's largest mining companies.

The copper: Resolution Copper Co. estimates that the mine would supply one-quarter of U.S. copper demand over several decades and is located more than a mile below the surface.

Legislation: Would swap approximately 2,400 acres of federal land for purchase by Resolution Copper Co. in exchange for 5,000 acres of land elsewhere in the state.

The method: As proposed, the mine would be completely underground, with no open pits. Resolution Copper Co. plans to use a method known as panel caving, a variation of block caving techniques.

Lands that would change hands

Resolution Copper would get:

  • 2,422 acres of the Oak Flat federal parcel in northeast Pinal County

The federal government would get 5,344 acres:

  • 147 acres of the Turkey Creek parcel in Gila County
  • 148 acres of the Tangle Creek parcel in Yavapai County
  • 149 acres of the Cave Creek parcel in Maricopa County
  • 640 acres of the East Clear Creek parcel in Coconino County
  • 110 acres of the Apache Leap South End parcel in Pinal County
  • 3,050 acres of the Lower San Pedro River lands in Pinal County
  • 160 acres of the Dripping Springs area in Gila and Pinal counties
  • 940 acres of the Appleton Ranch area in Santa Cruz County

The Town of Superior could buy up to 545 acres from the government:

  • 30 acres of the Fairview Cemetery Parcel in Pinal County
  • 265 acres around Superior Airport in Pinal County
  • 250 acres of parcels contiguous to the airport land