Women Near End of Walk to "Save Oak Flat" as Mining Fight Heats Up

A mother-and-daughter activist duo are nearing the end of their walk from Washington state to Arizona in protest of the pending destruction of the Oak Flat area near Superior because of copper mining.

Sally Noedel, 54, and her daughter, Emma Bigongiari, 19, braved heat waves and talked to people in five states about the congressional deal that allows a unique area loved by Native Americans and outdoor enthusiasts to be ravaged and how they're hoping to get the deal reversed.

Noedel and Bigongiari expect to be joined by protesters, including many Native Americans, when they complete their 1,500-mile journey by arriving at Oak Flat on Thursday.

"This one's not lost yet," Noedel insists. 

In December, Arizona U.S. Senator John McCain pushed successfully to attach an order on a must-pass defense bill, later signed by President Obama, giving land to a foreign mining company that previously had been protected from mining by President Eisenhower in 1955.

McCain's been the subject of persistent criticism over the stealth legislation — he was stalked by protesters during a meeting with Tucson Electric Power representatives last Thursday, then yelled at and "chased" on Friday following a meeting on the Navajo Nation with reservation leaders and Governor Doug Ducey.

Resolution Copper Mining is a 55-45 partnership between two of the biggest mining companies in the world, Rio Tinto of the United Kingdom and BHP-Billiton of Australia. In an interview with New Times earlier this year, RCM representatives admitted the planned mine will not only result in a mile-wide crater of rubble where people now camp and hold rock-climbing contests, but also in a small mountain of waste "tailings" likely to be dumped northeast of Queen Valley, an unincorporated community near the Superstition Mountains. The damage will be offset by a financial bonanza for Arizona, supposedly, but the state's history is loaded with tales of mining booms followed by busts.

Noedel and Bigongiari arrived in downtown Phoenix this weekend happy to be so close to their destination but weary from extreme temperatures that reached 117 degrees.

They plan to depart this morning from Main and Center streets in Mesa, with the goal of walking about 15 miles. They were joined for part of their walk on Friday by a member of the San Carlos Apache tribe and expected more support today. Several members of the tribe already have committed to walk with them into Oak Flat on Thursday.

Noedel, a small-business owner from Bainbridge Island who runs an online retail site, says she wanted to do something to protest the project, which "seems so wrong to me on every level. Everything I learned about this seemed like a new reason to find it objectionable."

"This one's not lost yet." — Sally Noedel

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Her plan to set out on a long walk to help the environment and support Native Americans seemed like a fine idea to her daughter, a college student returning to classes this fall. They began walking in late May from the Seattle area, taking the family dog, Waldo, and Noedel's red Ford Explorer as their support vehicle.

They typically took turns walking throughout the day, each putting in about five miles while the other followed in the SUV. They passed through Oregon, Idaho, and Utah before entering Arizona, enduring heat waves that limited that limited their walking time each day.

They've had to drive portions of the trip, given their self-imposed rule of not walking in temperatures over 100.

They haven't kept track of exactly how far they've walked in the three-month trip, but walking every mile isn't the point, they say — it is to raise awareness of the mine project and ongoing efforts to stop it. Supporters followed them on their blog, and they raised $2,355 out of a goal of $11,000 to help pay for the trip.

They've done some camping, stayed occasionally in motels, and crashed in the homes of other environmental activists. Emma's turned out to be an expert in the art of setting up "couch-surfing" for overnight stays, Noedel says.

As they've made their way along the West's back roads, they took the chance to chat about the project with Americans they've met, and they've heard a variety of reactions.

"Some people didn't see it as a significant issue," Noedel says. However, when other people heard an "American resource was being given to a foreign commodity, that really hit a nerve."

It's unclear at this point how much chance there really is to overturn the land-swap law. An environmental review is continuing to look at the impact of the planned "tailings" dump, but RCM would obtain rights to mine the land just south of U.S. 60 near Superior regardless of what the study finds.

The company already had invested a few years and $5 billion in the project before December passage of the law. Efforts to obtain the land for the mining company's disposal have gone on since RCM acquired rights to the planned mine and adjacent acreage in 2002, a long saga that includes the conviction and imprisonment of former Congressman Rick Renzi on related corruption charges.

In November, the company completed the drilling of a crucial shaft near Oak Flat that reaches almost 7,000 feet deep; McCain had toured the shaft weeks earlier.

State Senator Jeff Flake, a former lobbyist for Rio Tinto, acknowledged to the press at the time that the law never would have passed except for McCain's rider, but the law also has bipartisan support, including from Democratic Arizona Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, who believes it would help the economy.

U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva , a Tucson Democrat, introduced the "Save Oak Flat Act" in mid-June to roll back McCain's rider, and members of the San Carlos Apache tribe walked and rode to Washington for a demonstration last month. The bill hasn't gone anywhere since its introduction. But Grijalva says it provides protesters with a "flag to rally around."

The taking of the land for mining in such a sneaky fashion "was a violation of trust and an affront to sovereignty," Grijalva says.

The liberal congressman says he understands that the copper ore would be smelted in South Korea and sold to China. (RCM told New Times in March that the ore would be processed in Arizona or Utah, not South Korea.)

"This is an unhappy time for us on this issue, but we're not letting it go away," he says. Protesters ask him if there's still a chance of saving the land, and he tells them, "at the end of the day, we're going to win. We still have a lot of challenges ahead of us."

An interesting side story of the battle has been about the sacredness of the area.

Anti-mining demonstrators say the site is akin to Mount Sinai for Apaches, but Apache historian Dale Miles refuted the claim in a July 27 story published in the Arizona Republic. Miles wrote that Apaches who lived in the Superior area would travel to the San Carlos Apache or White Mountain reservations for important ceremonies and that Indians didn't say a word when mining began in 1970 in an area next to Oak Flat, which isn't on an Indian reservation.

If the land swap isn't canceled, RCM plans to begin the block-cave mining deep under Oak Flat in about five years.

UPDATE: Noedel and Bigongiari finished their walk to Oak Flat on August 20 as planned. See their report on the trip here.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.