One of the largest copper mines in the U.S. is being created in Arizona. The problem, an Apache place of worship called Oak Flat will disappear.
by Massimo Introvigne
Last week, a federal judge in Arizona denied to the Native American advocacy organization Apache Stronghold a preliminary injunction that would have blocked a land swap opening the way to the creation of one of the largest copper mines in the U.S. and indeed in the world. The mine, a $ 61-billion project, will employ 1,500 people.
The problem, U.S. District Judge Steven Logan was told, is that the project implies the destruction of Oak Flat, called by the Apache Chi’chil Bildagoteel, and regarded by them as a sacred place of their religion. As such, they claim, it cannot be destroyed both for reasons of religious freedom and because of a treaty signed in 1852 between the Apache tribes and the U.S. government.
The Apaches explained that Oak Flat is a natural “portal to the Creator God” in their religion, and its destruction will have devastating religious and cultural consequences.
The company responsible for creating the mine is Resolution Copper, a joint venture between multi-national companies BHP and Rio Tinto. It said that this is a 60-year project, and it would allow entry to Oak Flat to the Apaches as long as it will be safe. But eventually, the mine will “swallow” Oak Flat.
The land swap was included at the last minute in a must-pass defense bill voted by Congress in December 2014, after special legislation had failed to be passed. Several litigations followed.
Now, Judge Logan’s rule against Apache Stronghold opens the way to Resolution Copper taking possession of the area on March 16. One argument by the judge was that Apache Stronghold had no legal standing to act, being an NGO rather than a Native American tribe. He also maintained that Congress had the power to interpret the 1852 treaty, and that the violation of the Apaches’ religious liberty does not fall under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The judge expressed sympathy for the Apaches, but said that his “hands are tied.”
Apache Stronghold leader Wendsler Nosie, Sr., a descendant of one of the chiefs who signed the 1852 treaty, vowed to continue the fight.