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Tribes Halt Hudbay Minerals Copper Mine on Ancestral Lands in Arizona

Mining News - Published on Tue, 19 Nov 2019

Image Source: earthjustice.org
Rising above the Arizona desert, the Santa Rita Mountains cradle 10,000 years of Indigenous history. The Tohono O’odham Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and Hopi Tribe, among numerous other tribes, have worshipped, foraged, hunted, and laid their ancestors to rest in the mountains for generations. Mining corporation Hudbay Minerals proposed to dig a mile-wide open-pit copper mine in the Santa Ritas, burying dozens of sites sacred to the Tribes under 1.8 billion tons of toxic waste. The mine’s construction would raze ancestral Hohokam burial grounds, a historic Hohokam village, and vital mountain springs. Represented by Earthjustice, the Tohono O’odham fought Hudbay’s ill-conceived mine in court, joined by the Hopi and Pascua Yaqui Tribes. This summer, a judge ruled in favor of the three Tribes, halting the mine in its tracks and directing the Forest Service to protect these public lands from the devastating impacts of the mine.

The Santa Rita Mountains are one of Arizona’s most biodiverse regions, with flora and fauna endemic to the Southwest. Undulating mountain ranges, part of the Sky Islands, frame a desert floor spotted with spiky yucca plants. The Santa Ritas are home to several endangered species, including the jaguar and southwestern willow flycatcher. Critical to this desert ecosystem are freshwater streams, which nourish the land like capillaries through a body. The streams were the lifeblood of the Tohono O’odham’s ancestors, and are considered holy by the Tribe — making Hudbay’s plans to pollute them with heavy metals and deplete the water table especially devastating. The only way Hudbay could get away with creating a colossal mine on public lands was by an industry sleight-of-hand using an antiquated mining law.

The Mining Law of 1872 grants companies a right to use public lands on mining claims if the land is discovered to contain a valuable mineral deposit. Hudbay filed patented claims overlying the proposed mine pit, which contained valuable minerals, including copper. They also filed hundreds of unpatented claims on adjacent lands with no mining value, where they intended to dump over a billion tons of toxic waste rock and tailings. The Forest Service acquiesced to this land grab, assuming Hudbay had a right to these unpatented claims without bothering to check whether Hudbay had discovered the requisite valuable mineral deposit on those claims.

In 2017, the Tohono O’odham turned to Earthjustice for help, after being sidelined by the Forest Service during the mine’s development. Through this partnership, the Tribe imparted the deep importance of the Santa Ritas to attorney Stu Gillespie.

The case moved slowly in the courts, but the company was moving quickly to start excavation. As Hudbay brazenly challenged the Tribes by bringing machinery to the mine site, Gillespie could see that he needed to take the bold step of seeking a preliminary injunction to stop any digging from starting. Preliminary injunctions often aren’t granted, because they’re an exceptional remedy of last resort and parties must prove that they face immediate irreparable harm.

Adding to the urgency, Hudbay planned to hastily clear all of the lands that are burial grounds for the Tohono O’odham Nation’s ancestors – the Hohokam. In the 1980s, another company prepared to mine the same site and encountered the burial grounds. The Anamax Mining Company soon went bankrupt and abandoned the site, leaving graves and the ancient village grounds open to the elements. Some of the Tribes’ ancestral remains were shipped to the University of Arizona, where they were warehoused for thirty years while the Tribes fought to repatriate them. They were only returned to the Tohono O’odham Nation several years ago. The Tribes were adamant about preventing a repeat of history.

Instead of granting a preliminary injunction, the judge went a step further and definitively ruled on the merits of the Tribes’ case itself. The Court held that the Forest Service made a “crucial error” by assuming Hudbay had a right to use public lands without any evidence of a valuable mineral deposit, and that this error “tainted the Forest Service’s evaluation of the Rosemont Mine from the start.” With this argument, he prevented any mining activities from going forward, and called out the Forest Service for abdicating its duty to protect our public lands.

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Posted By : Rabi Wangkhem on Tue, 19 Nov 2019
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