WASHINGTON • Government, tribal and environmental witnesses told a congressional committee Tuesday a controversial land swap bill needs a lot of work before they will drop their resistance to it.
The opponents — from the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona and the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition — said watered-down environmental and cultural protections, and questionable employment estimates, make the bill not worth the risk.
Supporters called those arguments scare tactics and focused instead on the potential benefits of swapping land with Resolution Copper under the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2011.
Preliminary estimates say the land in question could supply up to 30 percent of the nation’s copper needs and the mining operation could have an economic impact of about $60 billion over more than 60 years.
Supporters insisted that the bill is in line with existing environmental and cultural protections. They also said that Resolution Copper has been environmentally responsible in Arizona.
“When we built this legislation, we looked at the roadblocks, and that’s why we designed it the way we did,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, who introduced the bill.
Gosar’s bill is the 10th attempt since 2005 to swap federally owned land near Superior for land held by Resolution Copper.
Forest Service Associate Chief Mary Wagner and BLM Deputy Director Marcilynn Burke told a House Natural Resources subcommittee that their agencies can’t support the bill as written. Both said the one-year deadline for the exchange wasn’t enough time to complete extensive environmental and cultural assessments of the land.
Gosar countered by saying the environmental assessment process is scheduled after the exchange so Resolution Copper can pay for it, saving taxpayers money and making it faster.
“We’ve got to change. We’ve got to be more nimble,” he said.
Wagner and Burke also said the Department of the Interior must be involved in consultations with Native American tribes. As written, the bill has no such provisions.
Resolution Copper Vice President Jon Cherry said the company has been trying to work with tribes outside of the legislation.
Cherry told the subcommittee the proposed mine was important for the nation’s copper production, for local economies and for conservation — the land the federal government would receive from Resolution needs to be preserved, he said.
Superior Mayor Michael Hing, testifying in favor of the bill for the third time, called this version of the land-exchange bill “a major step forward.”
“We need jobs. We need revenue now,” Hing said. “It’s time to act.”
Bryan Martyn, vice chairman of the Pinal County Board of Supervisors, agreed that the bill is needed. Martyn said his county is No. 2 in the nation for population growth but doesn’t have the resources to support all its new residents.
“This issue’s not about politics. It’s about enhancing the quality of life for residents of Pinal County,” Martyn said.
The economic impact of the deal was also cited by Harrison Talgo, a member of the San Carlos Apache Nation. He said his tribe needs the economic benefits.
But Inter Tribal Council of Arizona President Shan Lewis said the exchange would give away more than 2,400 acres vital to the identities of the tribes. The council submitted several resolutions in opposition to past versions of the land-exchange bill.
Roger Featherstone, director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, testified that the bill would destroy recreation areas, impact Native American culture and damage the environment before Resolution Copper can show the mine would live up to its potential.
“Giving away Oak Flat well before (the company) has determined a mine is even feasible is not a sound business deal for America,” he said.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, had tough questions for Cherry, asking if there would be any copper exported to China and whether a foreign entity could end up owning the land. Cherry couldn’t absolutely rule out either possibility.
Grijalva also questioned the true number of jobs Resolution Copper would bring to Superior, referring to company information saying technology would mean fewer hands-on jobs.
During a conference call after the hearing, Gosar called the opposition’s arguments “scare tactics.”
Hing said opponents were just “trying to make up excuses.”
“(Resolution Copper) has been committed to our community since day one,” he said.