We Want to Talk: Resolution Copper Breaks Silence Over Land Swap

Resolution Copper Co. speaks about the land swap that handed 2,400 acres of sacred Apache land over to mining.

Amid protests and allegations of corruption surrounding a recent land swap that made sacred Apache land vulnerable to copper mining, the company in question has been mum.

But recently an executive with Resolution Copper, which managed to secure 2,400 acres of sacred Apache land under which lie ore deposits, sat down with Indian Country Today Media Network. He said that far from being aloof, the company has been rebuffed in its attempts to connect with the San Carlos Apache Tribe of Arizona.

Photo: Courtesy Resolution Copper

Resolution Copper Company Project Director Andrew Taplin

“I think the public’s understanding is that no dialogue has taken place, and that’s not the case,” said Resolution Copper Project Director Andrew Taplin in an exclusive interview. “I have written and personally spoken with current San Carlos Chairman Terry Rambler and former Chairman Wendsler Nosie Sr., encouraging dialogue. A number of opportunities have been offered up, including the most recent, when the chief executive of our parent company visited Arizona and extended an invitation for Chairman Rambler and he to meet, and that invitation was not responded to.”

Some discussions are taking place with other neighboring tribes and non-Natives, as well as “some members of the San Carlos Apache tribe who understand the benefits associated with the project,” said Taplin. “We held an open forum on the reservation a few weeks ago with 50 tribal members engaging in healthy dialogue for over three hours.”

Another session is planned in the next few weeks, he said. Meanwhile, the company is safeguarding Apache Leap and the Oak Flat campground, where protesters have been staying since the land-swap rider, attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, was passed in February.

“We listened very carefully to the concerns of the San Carlos Apache tribe prior to the passage of the land exchange bill and addressed those concerns to the fullest extent possible,” said Taplin. “Ongoing access to the campground will continue as long as it is safe to do so, and we expect access will continue for a number of decades. Another concern was for adequate protection of Apache Leap, so 800 acres have been put into permanent protection status, and we’ve foregone any of our mineral rights in that area.”

He said the company continues to welcome any and all discussion.

“Despite the fact that we have not been able to have a rich engagement of dialogue, we listened very carefully to Chairman Rambler’s Washington testimony to ensure the concerns of the tribe are being addressed,” Taplin said.

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Taplin actually did not see the two sides as opposed—it could work out in both parties’ favor, he said.

“This is often framed as ‘it’s either one or the other,’ but my view is with some constructive dialogue and understanding of the issues getting talked through, we could actually have both,” he said, referring to preservation of the holy lands even in the face of a mine. “This can be a wonderful project of benefit to many, done in a manner respectful of tribes that have traditionally used that land. I believe you can have respect for development of a project like this one and still have careful consideration of the religious and cultural concerns the San Carlos Apache tribe has.”

However, Resolution Copper has been unwavering in acknowledging that its 2,400-page Mine Plan of Operation calls for block and caving protocol to get to the 7,000-foot level, where company execs are confident that a large deposit of 1.5 percent–grade copper ore lies—enough to extract a billion pounds of the metal annually during the life of the mine.

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“It’s the only commercially viable method with the least environmental impact,” said Taplin, noting that other mines in nearby towns have used the same tactic. “We anticipate surface subsidence could be two miles in diameter and crater-like in nature, up to 1,000 feet at its deepest point.”

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Tailing dumps up to 500 feet high could occupy up to 10 square miles, and it would drain into nearby Queen Creek. But Taplin said that modern building codes render these features much less noxious and harmful than in the past.

“What people see in older mine tailings is not representative of what regulators will allow us to construct here,” said Taplin. “We have an obligation for progressive reclamation, so there will be no impact on ground or surface water supplies.”

Regarding the economic impact of the $64 billion project, company publicity called it “a major job creator in Arizona” with 3,700 direct and indirect jobs and a $107 million payroll.

“We’re confident the headcount estimates are accurate and represent the number of people we will have on the project each shift, each day, and each week to undertake the work needed,” Taplin noted.

Later this year, one of the key components of the project, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) environmental survey, will commence and is expected to take a number of years to complete with numerous opportunities for public consultation.

“There is an obligation for government-to-government dialogue where the federal government will be engaging with Native American communities as sovereign nations seeking their input and helping craft the way the project will be developed, constructed, and operated,” Taplin said.

But that does not appear likely, as the protesters at Oak Flat, along with tribal and environmental allies from all quarters, have vowed to fight any mining attempts.

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Nevertheless, Taplin expressed some measure of optimism for future communications.

“Our approach to the current opposition we have from the tribe is to continue with our outreach efforts and continue to talk transparently about the project benefits,” Taplin said. “I’m optimistic we will have a breakthrough and will be able to talk through the issues to come up with a solution—not a one-or-the-other solution, but with guidance from the San Carlos Apache leadership about how we need to go about this. I’m confident we can respectfully and responsibly develop this project and do it in collaboration with tribal leadership. In due course, I believe we’ll be at the table talking about the issues. I consider my role to be that of a relationship builder, not just somebody who wants to dig a big hole in the ground.”