Arizona State Parks discussed a donation of land from Resolution Copper as the company proposed to dump 1.5 billion tons of mining waste a short drive away from Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, according to an internal memo obtained by Phoenix New Times.
The revelation poses conflict-of-interest questions for an agency that is already busy fending off numerous scandals under its embattled director, Sue Black. Black was placed on administrative leave Thursday after New Times and the Arizona Republic reported multiple allegations that her agency destroyed native antiquities sites.
As the memo states, around the same time a Parks deputy director spoke with a Resolution Copper lobbyist on June 12 about the potential gift of a campground, the agency declined to participate in public meetings about the proposed waste dump. The memo's author, former Parks compliance officer Will Russell, confirmed its authenticity. He declined to speak on-the-record about its contents, except to make two clarifications (as will be noted below).
Resolution Copper, following years of drama and political wrangling over its mining plans, continues to prepare for full-scale mining operations at one of the world's richest copper deposits, located near the U.S. 60 north of Superior. A federal environmental review has focused on proposed sites for the small mountain of waste the mine will generate, and the preferred site is only a few miles from the Arboretum park.
New Times has learned that Arizona State Parks declined to participate in public meetings regarding the proposed mine dump, despite Tonto National Forest officials offering them an opportunity to do so. The agency's silence on the project also contrasted with the arboretum director’s public opposition to the proposed waste storage location.
“We would prefer not to have that in our front yard,” said Gaylyn Yanke, a University of Arizona employee and director of the arboretum. Yanke cited visual blight and the potential for ground pollution as reasons she opposes the current waste storage plan. Native American tribes, including the San Carlos Apache, have also protested the project.
When an official from Governor Doug Ducey’s administration found out about the agency's silence, he instructed Russell to apologize to the Forest Service and request that the agency be included in further discussions about the matter, according to the memo.
Now, the alleged talks of a gift between Resolution Copper and Parks are subject to a sweeping investigation by the Ducey administration of alleged wrongdoing at Arizona State Parks, spokesperson Megan Rose confirmed.
A spokesperson for Resolution Copper denied the company offered to give land to the Parks department.
Discussion of a land gift from Resolution Copper adds a new category of questionable practices under Black's leadership.
Multiple allegations of hostile working conditions have arisen under Black, who was appointed by Ducey in 2015. And this month, Phoenix New Times and the Arizona Republic reported that the department allegedly destroyed numerous antiquities site, leading to her suspension and prompting native legislators to call for a criminal investigation and her firing.
As of Thursday evening, a spokesperson for the Arizona Parks department had not responded to request for comment.
Russell, the author of the memo, is the same whistle-blower who went public last month in news stories about the department’s alleged destruction of native antiquities sites.
As part of its plan to dig out one of the world's largest copper deposits, Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, proposes storing hundreds of millions of tons of mucky waste onto 4,000 acres of Tonto National Forest land.
The proposed storage pile — which would contain a byproduct of copper mining known as tailings — would be visible from the arboretum.
U.S. Forest representatives this summer asked Arizona State Parks to weigh in during public meetings on alternative locations for the proposed tailings site, specifically because of the potential impact on the arboretum’s visitors.
The public meetings are a requirement of a controversial 2014 land swap deal between the federal government and Resolution Copper that granted the company access to the copper ore deposit. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) mandates that the government involve stakeholders in an evaluation of potential environmental impacts of the land exchange.
Parks did not respond to invitations to participate in meetings, according to Russell’s memo. The U.S. Forest Service sought clarification from Russell about Parks' involvement with the NEPA process be in June. Three days after the Forest Service made contact with Russell, a senior Parks manager interfered with his attempt to further involve the agency with the process. (Before the June correspondence, Russell had previously contacted the Forest Service regarding the NEPA process in November 2017, he said.)
According to the memo, Parks deputy director James Keegan pulled Russell aside and said he had recently met with Hesston Klenk, a lobbyist representing Resolution Copper. (Keegan was also suspended on Thursday.)
Keegan allegedly said Resolution Copper offered to gift Oak Flat campground to the state as part of its controversial land swap deal with the federal government. Asked about the memo, Russell said he later learned that Keegan may have been mistaken about which campground was allegedly being offered by Resolution Copper.
Keegan allegedly added that he and Klenk were “just talking” at that point and that no gift of a campground had been finalized. Keegan said he planned to meet with Black to discuss the particulars, according to the memo. Any such deal would need Parks board approval.
Jonathan Ward, a spokesperson for Resolution Copper, confirmed that Keegan met with Klenk, but denied that the company offered to give any land. Ward said Oak Flat campground came up, but only to discuss a management plan to keep the site open.
"Resolution Copper is committed to keeping the Oak Flat Campground open to the public for as long as it is safe to do so, which will require a management plan. At no point in the meeting did the subject of 'gifting' land become a topic of conversation," Ward said. "Mr. Klenk invited Mr. Keegan and others to visit the project and explore the possibility of working together in the future. At this time, Mr. Keegan has not followed up or scheduled a visit."
A draft environmental impact statement for the project is slated for May 2019, which is when the final dump location will be finalized.
According to Russell, four days after Keegan raised the possibility of a potential gift from the mining company, interim deputy director Bret Parke asked the compliance officer for a briefing on Parks’ involvement with the NEPA process. Parke had started in his position in June, just before Governor Ducey’s administrative arm launched a three-month investigation of practices in Black’s Parks department.
Upon learning that the Parks agency skipped the NEPA meetings, Parke asked Russell to immediately apologize to the U.S. Forest Service. He also instructed Russell to ask that the department be involved in the process going forward.
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On top of allegedly offering to give land to Arizona State Parks, Resolution Copper has donated $32,400 to the arboretum nonprofit since 2015, according to federal tax returns, raising additional conflict-of-interest questions. Russell stated that Parks was electing not to be a part of the NEPA process as early as the Fall 2017.
In recent years, up until 2018, Parks employees served as voting members of the nonprofit’s board, giving them decision-making powers regarding the arboretum and closely linking the agency to the nonprofit organization.
In 2016, the arboretum board included among its eight members deputy director James Keegan and former chief of operations Shawn Schmidt, according to an annual report filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission. Keegan sat on the board last year.
No Parks members sit on the board in 2018, according to Yanke, the arboretum director. She said that the agency has struggled to find a qualified person for the position "mostly due to the unrest or high turnover in the agency.”