New Report Provides Terrifying Detail of Mining Destruction Coming for Oak Flat

Resolution Copper's "No. 10 shaft" is North America's deepest mine shaft, plunging 6,943 feet below the surface.
Resolution Copper's "No. 10 shaft" is North America's deepest mine shaft, plunging 6,943 feet below the surface. Ray Stern
The crater would start in Year Six, after the copper mining began.

It would be relatively small at first, and then it would expand. By Year 41, the crater would grow to about 1.8 miles wide, and it would collapse to depths of 800 to 1,115 feet, taking Oak Flat, an area near Superior, Arizona, that is sacred to the San Carlos Apache, with it.

Meanwhile, the toxic, ugly tailings left from extracting 40 billion pounds of copper from 1.4 billion tons of ore would be dumped and supposedly contained — somehow, somewhere — in the vicinity of Superior, about an hour east of Phoenix. Gradually, contaminated water would leak into the surrounding environment.

On Friday, the U.S. Forest Service published a draft environmental impact statement examining the expected impacts of the proposed copper mine on the surrounding land and communities. It would be owned and operated by Resolution Copper, which is owned by British company Rio Tinto (55 percent) and Australian company BHP (45 percent).

The report, required by law, provides a terrifying look at the permanent devastation from the proposed mine. For Rio Tinto, it's "a major permitting milestone" for one of the largest undeveloped deposits of copper in the world. To those who oppose the mine, it's further proof that the Forest Service has caved to the mining industry. 

In addition to the crater, the destruction of sacred historic sites, and the toxic waste, the operations could consume more than two Apache Lakes' worth of water transported from the Colorado River and pulled from precious groundwater supplies, changing the flow of surrounding rivers and springs. The mining would disturb the habitats of endangered species like the Western yellow-billed cuckoo and the Southwestern willow flycatcher.

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The crater that would expand over the proposed mine.
U.S. Forest Service
The potential consequences are so expansive and complex that it took the Forest Service more than 1,300 pages to lay them all out. 

Advocates of varying stripes — environmental, endangered species, tribal rights — have actively opposed the proposed mine for years, but some say that the real fight begins now, after the Forest Service produced this assessment required by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

The public has until November 7 to comment on it.

Critics say they need and will demand more time to fully parse its details and produce comments of their own. They decry the legal loopholes and political machinations that propelled the proposed mine forward, and they say that the Forest Service has failed in its responsibility to protect public lands.

"Now is basically when we really gear up," said Roger Featherstone, director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, which includes tribes and environmental organizations that oppose the mine.

"We'll tear that document apart and prepare our own detailed comments. We'll be active in all the public meetings, we'll have our own meetings. So there will be a lot of activity over the next few months," he added.

Mining for profit

Featherstone said that the draft environmental impact statement showed how the Forest Service had not done its job. Under NEPA, agencies are supposed to "rigorously explore and objectively evaluate" a range of "reasonable" alternatives to proposed projects.

But in the draft statement, the Forest Service says it considered only one mining technique: panel caving.

Panel caving is a form of block caving, and it is highly destructive. This method "depends on gravity and internal geological stresses to extract ore from underneath the ore body," according to the draft environmental impact statement, which also states that "potential risks to public safety from mine-induced seismic or other geological activity are low."

After vertical shafts and tunnels are built through drilling and blasting, the copper ore is blasted apart from below, causing it to collapse into giant funnels known as drawbells. At the proposed mine at Oak Flat, the ore would then be moved to an underground crushing facility. The crushed ore would be hauled halfway to the surface — about 3,500 feet up — and put into a conveyor system to be shipped to a processing plant.

In the draft statement, the Forest Service says that it "assessed alternative mining techniques in an effort to prevent subsidence, but alternative methods were unreasonable." As a result, it "dismissed [those alternatives] from detailed analysis" in the draft report.
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The town of Superior, Arizona, would suffer as a result of proposed mining operations in nearby Oak Flat, according to the Forest Service.

When asked why the draft report did not consider alternatives to block caving, John Scaggs, a spokesperson for the Tonto National Forest, said in an email such a statement was "incorrect," citing information "evident" in the appendix.

Appendix F — "Alternatives Considered But Dismissed From Detailed Analysis" — has a few pages on alternative mining methods. It rejected open-pit mining, stating that it would have a far greater destructive footprint than block caving. After a more thorough evaluation of techniques involving a process called stoping, the Forest Service dismissed those possibilities too, citing Resolution Copper's future profits.

"Technically these methods could be used," it acknowledged, but those techniques were "found to have higher operational costs than panel caving," given the grade of copper ore under Oak Flat. There, the deposit is on average 1.54 percent copper, meaning that for every ton of ore, the company can extract 31 pounds of copper.

The stoping techniques considered would "substantially reduce the amount of ore that could be profitably mined," the Forest Service added.

In the end, the Forest Service decided that "alternative mining techniques ... were not found to be reasonable" because they were "not economically feasible."

Featherstone, who said he is still working his way through the 1,300-page report, said he had found other sections where information seemed to be missing.

The Forest Service's preferred alternative for dumping the thickened slurry of mining waste is an impoundment in an area southeast of Superior called Skunk Camp, where land is private or state-owned. Land managed by the Forest Service would also be disturbed.

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The small gray bulb near Superior shows where the proposed mine would be. The Forest Service's preferred waste site is the teal swatch.
U.S. Forest Service
"They haven't done any geophysical characterization of that site," Featherstone said. "They don't know if the location where they want to put the tailings dams is actually suitable or safe."

Given this deficiency and others, the Forest Service would need to either rewrite the draft environmental impact statement or release a supplemental version, triggering a fresh comment period and a new process of deliberation, Featherstone said.

Resolution Copper's own modeling already has proved imperfect. In 2014, as miners were drilling an exploratory shaft, they unexpectedly encountered a river of hot water, the trade publication CIM Magazine reported in 2015, even though the company expected little water in that area. They also had surprise problems with fog.

In response to emailed questions about the accuracy of Resolution Copper's hydrological modeling, Hesston Klenk, a spokesperson for Resolution Copper, did not give a straight answer.

Instead, Klenk said that the hydrological model for "dewatering impacts" from the mine was "investigated independently by the USFS and other federal and state agencies through a hydrological working group." He said the model was completed according to regulatory standards.

The Rosemont ruling

The Forest Service claims that it cannot deny Resolution Copper approval, but Featherstone and others don't see the mine as a done deal. 

A recent federal court ruling on the controversial Rosemont copper mine in southern Arizona has given them hope. A bill in Congress introduced by Arizona Representative Raúl Grijalva and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders also aims to undo the land swap that is at the heart of the proposed Resolution mine, although its chances of passage in the current Congress are slim.

On July 31, U.S. District Judge James Soto blocked the construction of Rosemont, located in the Coronado National Forest, saying that the Forest Service had "abdicated its duty to protect the ... Forest." Legal experts told the Arizona Daily Star that the decision could have national ramifications.

The Forest Service has a longtime habit of not challenging industry mining claims, under the 1872 Mining Law, but Soto's ruling could upend that — and potentially affect Resolution Copper's proposed mine at Oak Flat.

Tonto National Forest Service Supervisor Neil Bosworth effectively said as much on August 9, when the Forest Service put out a press release announcing the draft environmental impact statement.
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The Oak Flat area would be destroyed by Resolution Copper's proposed mine near Superior.
Ray Stern
“The Forest Service is required to consider proposed plans of operations for mining, and if they meet environmental regulations, minimize environmental impacts, and other requirements, we’re required to approve them under the General Mining Law of 1872,” Bosworth said in that statement.

The draft environmental impact statement also claims that the Forest Service "does not have discretion" to choose the alternative of doing nothing, citing federal code and the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that authorized the land exchange.

Randy Serraglio, an advocate with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, suggested that the Rosemont decision could reverse that outlook.

"The Forest Service has always operated on the assumption that they have no ability to say no when a mining company wants to mine on public land," he said.

But when the judge decided that the Forest Service had misinterpreted mining law, “it was kind of a sweeping decision," Serraglio said. It could set a precedent affecting all mining decisions going forward, he added.

Klenk, Resolution Copper's spokesperson, disputed that assessment, saying in an email, "The Rosemont decision is not applicable to Resolution Copper."

The company's justification for its belief, Klenk explained, was that the Forest Service was following the NEPA process, adding, "We do not anticipate that the Rosemont decision will have any bearing on the Resolution Final Environmental Impact Statement."

Klenk's statement did not address the fact that the Forest Service had, in fact, green-lighted the Rosemont mine, and that the judge who blocked construction decided that the agency's review was inadequate.

Hudbay Minerals, which sought to open the mine at Rosemont, said it plans to appeal the judge's decision.

Avoiding the public

Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, said the organization long has opposed the ways in which the proposed mine has advanced.

In 2015, Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake inserted an authorization for the land swap into the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. Under that exchange, the Forest Service would trade Oak Flat Federal Parcel — the land that Resolution Copper wants to mine and which is currently public land — for eight parcels elsewhere in Arizona owned by the mining company.

Oak Flat Federal Parcel, which is part of the land that would be mined from below, was withdrawn from mining by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955.

"The whole process for doing this land exchange is really contrary to how a public process should work," Bahr said.

The NEPA process should have been followed before the land exchange, not after, if the government really wanted to adhere to the correct processes for soliciting public input on public lands, she added.

“The Forest Service interpretation of the exchange provision ... is that it tells them that they have to do the exchange," Bahr said. "They’re just looking at how to do it, not whether or not to do it.”

In the coming months, the Center for Biological Diversity is "going to put together a team of experts and get the word out to as many people as possible" about the proposed mine, Serraglio said — something that the Forest Service is not doing.

In fact, the Forest Service's actions seem aimed almost at avoiding or minimizing public input and discussion.

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A Western yellow-billed cuckoo at Montezuma Well, Arizona.
Featherstone said he learned that the draft environmental impact statement had been disseminated through a press release from the mining company — not from the Forest Service. The Environmental Protection Agency, not the Forest Service, published a notice of the document to the Federal Register.

Scaggs, the Tonto National Forest spokesperson, defended the agency, saying it had distributed a press release online and submitted legal notice "to multiple publications, including the Arizona Capitol Times and Arizona Silver Belt."

The Capitol Times is an expensive, subscription-based publication read primarily by lawmakers, government officials, lobbyists, other politicos, and journalists, not the general public. The Silver Belt is a newspaper in Globe with a circulation of 8,800.

The Forest Service plans to hold five public meetings in September to discuss the proposed mine. They are in Superior, Kearny, Queen Valley, San Tan Valley, and Globe, all of which are in the vicinity of the proposed mine and possible waste sites.

But Serraglio pointed out that people in Phoenix and Tucson also care about and use the areas that would be affected by the mine and wherever its waste ends up being dumped.

"All tailings facilities would be visible from long distances," the draft environmental impact statement states. Each of the alternatives would be visible from trails, overlooks, or highways, it adds.

Asked why the Forest Service had scheduled zero public meetings in the state's most populous cities, Scaggs wrote, "Multiple variables — such as logistics and availability of resources — were considered while forming the public comment meeting schedule."

He added that the Forest Service would publish any changes to these meetings on the website for the project and spread the word through social media and news releases, too.

Forever altered

The draft environmental impact statement is rife with devastating conclusions.

Many of the damages it lays out were previously established or suspected, but the draft report confirms the proposed mine's destructiveness in greater detail and specificity — like the projected dimensions of the crater — than before.

The proposed mine has a "high potential ... to directly, adversely, and permanently affect numerous cultural artifacts, sacred seeps and springs, traditional ceremonial areas, resource gathering localities, burial locations, and other places and experiences of high spiritual and other value to tribal members," the Forest Service noted in the report.

Burial sites would be be "impacted," too, it says, but it couldn't say how many until mining activities discovered them. Oak Flat would be "directly and permanently damaged" by the crater, and the area around the mine would be "permanently altered by large-scale ore removal and geological subsidence."

The crater, at its projected maximum, would come within a few hundred meters of Apache Leap, an area that is also sacred to the Apache for the story of 75 Apache warriors who chose to leap to their deaths rather than die at the hands of U.S. soldiers in the 1870s.

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U.S. Forest Service

"They keep saying they’re going to have all this subsidence, but that there won’t be any impact to Apache Leap. They say there'll be no damage to Devil's Canyon," Bahr, of the Sierra Club, said. With the depth of the mining and the water that would be pumped as a result, she said, “it’s hard to believe ... that they’re not going to have impacts to those areas.”

"Those are things that we have questioned and I’m sure we’ll question as we look at this draft," Bahr added.

A spokesperson for the San Carlos Apache Tribe responded to an initial query seeking comment but did not reply to specific questions regarding the proposed mine.

Mining activity, which includes removing water that accumulates underground, "would be likely over time to result in measurable reductions in flows in Devil's Canyon and Queen Creek and the long-term loss of some seeps and springs in the Superior area," the draft environmental impact statement says.

Storing the toxic waste could pose a risk to groundwater and streams, as contaminants "escape controls" and seep into those waters, according to the report.

Local communities besides tribes would be affected too. 

The nearby town of Superior would suffer from housing shortages, the report states. Its schools and municipal services would be overloaded, and prices would go up, hurting low-income and minority communities.
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.