Tribes Halt Major Copper Mine on Ancestral Lands in Arizona
By Alison Cagle
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.
"Our relationship to the land is first and foremost," said Austin G. Nuñez, chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation's San Xavier District in Tucson. "When our Hohokam ancestors' laid their loved ones in their final resting place, they never envisioned having them disturbed. We make every effort to not disturb them. We still feel their spirits today."
The proposed Rosemont Mine threatened Cienega Creek, where these children are playing. Thomas Wiewandt
Tohono O'odham families gather at the sacred sites to reinforce their connection to the desert that has sheltered them for generations. During these gatherings, tribal members will collect yucca, acorns, wild onion, plants for medicinal purposes, or bear grass for basket making.
"When our children were younger, we'd take them to the proposed Rosemont site and the desert to be with nature," said Nuñez. He laughs, remembering the calming effect of the environment. "It's amazing. When they were out there, the children wouldn't fight. They'd enjoy it. It's so peaceful."
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.
This is a common abuse of the Mining Law, especially for gigantic open-pit mines like Rosemont. As mining companies began building massive industrial-scale operations in the 20th century, they twisted the law to fit their need for thousands of acres of additional public lands for waste dumps. The Forest Service has simply turned a blind eye on these baseless rights, letting companies run roughshod over our public lands.
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.
"One of the most fulfilling parts of this case was sharing food with the Tohono O'odham leaders, [and] understanding their cultural ways of life and how important the sacred springs are," said Gillespie. People of all backgrounds can relate to the importance of preserving burial grounds, he noted, adding, "We wouldn't want someone building a mine in Arlington Cemetery."
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.
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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.
The judge in the case "identified the fatal flaw in the Forest Service's reasoning," said Gillespie. "He laid out an unbroken line of Supreme Court decisions, saying, 'No, you don't have rights under the Mining Law to pollute this land under billions of tons of waste rock, without evidence of valuable minerals.'"
The Santa Rita mountains loom over the desert in southern Arizona. Frank Walsh / Save the Scenic Santa Ritas
The judge's ruling could set a precedent among similar mining claims that abuse the Mining Law. By clearly identifying the Forest Service's obligation to regulate unpatented mining claims, this victory could make it harder for giant mining companies to exploit ancestral lands for Native American tribes and pollute precious ecosystems.
"The federal government and Hudbay tried to put up as many arguments as possible, but it was all smoke and mirrors," said Gillespie. "The judge cut through that really clearly. It's a powerful decision that stands for the proposition that nobody should get a free pass to wreak havoc on our public lands."
The victory is deeply felt among the Tohono O'odham, who see in this ruling a validation of Indigenous sovereignty over corporate schemes to desecrate their ancestral land.
"The judge's ruling shows that there is hope in the system," said Chairman Nuñez. "There are good people who believe in the sovereignty of Native nations, and their fundamental, inherent right to land and water. It has reinforced our vow to protect and enhance the lands we do have. We prayed that that mine would never be built. So it felt like our prayers had been answered."
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Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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