Defense Bill Rider: Congress Gives Sacred Native American Land To Mining Company

Savvy politicians have managed to slip some pretty outrageous items into must-pass legislation in the past, but the massive defense bill passed Friday may have one of the most controversial riders in recent history. Thanks to the bill, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, an Australian-British mining firm with ties to Iran, will receive the right to mine 2,400 acres of Tonto National Forest near Superior, Arizona, an area sacred to local Apache tribes.

Arizona Senator and past presidential hopeful John McCain was mainly responsible for inserting the resolution into the already massive defense bill.

After its passage, McCain said in a statement, “Resolution Copper represents a game-changer for an area of Arizona facing grave economic challenges.”

According to the Arizona Daily Star, the mining project will produce $61 billion through its lifetime and create about 3,700 jobs. Still, the opposition, which includes Native Americans, conservationists, former miners, and state officials, are furious.

As San Carlos Apache Tribe former chairman Wendsler Nosie explained, “I’m outraged.”

“Here McCain and other leaders preach about democracy, human rights, freedom of religion… Yet they attach (the land swap) to this bill. Where is their conscience?”

The tribes claim that in the mining process, called block-cave mining (explained further in the video below), will destroy sacred ceremonial and burial grounds. According to the Daily Star, in the end the mine will leave a two-mile wide and 1,000-foot deep crater in Oak Flat, part of which was made off-limits to miners in 1955 by an order from then President Dwight Eisenhower. The massive new defense bill will overturn that order.

Rio Tinto says that the defense bill rider, often called Resolution Copper, is focused on well-regulated mining practices and cooperation with Native Americans to ensure their needs are met.

The first time Congress saw the land-swap proposal was in 2005, in an dedicated piece of legislation rather than as a rider to the important defense bill. The legislation failed, as did many variations that came after. Leading opposition to decry McCain’s strategy as undermining democracy.

Whether the defense bill tactic was fair or not, some people in Superior welcome the project. Local resident Pam Rabago explained a bit about the area’s situation.

“This area is hurting for jobs. The people are hurting. We need this mine and we need it to be Resolution Copper.”

According to the Associated Press, Senator Tom Coburn led a group of Republicans to remove the rider from the defense bill, but he was ultimately defeated, only garnering 18 votes.

The other major objection to the project comes from the company’s connection to Iran. The Huffington Post reports that Tehran owns a 15 percent share of a Rio Tinto Uranium mine in Namibia, and had two Iranian board members until 2012.

On the other hand, Rio Tinto has argued that there is no active partnership with Iran — meaning the country would get no benefit from the mine — nor would it violate sanctions against the regime, and that they have discussed the matter with the Department of State.

[Image Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr]