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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By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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