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SAN FRANSISCO— The federal government has temporarily halted plans to construct a copper mine on sacred Indigenous land in Arizona known as Oak Flat, citing an error in oral arguments made at a March hearing.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) official filed a letter to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday, May 18, saying it made an error during oral arguments on March 21 when the 9th Circuit reheard Apache Stronghold v. United States, a case that encapsulates a nearly decade-long fight to save the land sacred to the San Carlos Apache Tribe.

The letter states that the government was mistaken about when the U.S. Forest Service would issue the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which would finalize a land exchange between the U.S. Forest Service and Resolution Copper, kickng off construction of the mine. In oral arguments at the en banc hearing, attorneys representing the U.S. Forest Service stated the EIS will be finalized this spring or early summer. However, a timeframe for the final EIS has not yet been determined. 

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“Government counsel informed the Court that the ‘the prediction still is that [the EIS] will be ready this spring’ and would be issued by late spring or early summer,” Joan M. Pepin wrote to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Thursday, May 18. “The Department has not yet identified a timeframe for completing its review.”

The federal government said it is currently conducting a thorough review of its consultation records, including environmental and associated documents to ensure compliance of a 2,422 acres land swap on federal land above a copper deposit. The area is considered sacred by many Apache people. 

“The Government told the Court tonight that it is delaying its timeline for issuing its Environmental Impact Statement on Oak Flat,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. of Apache Stronghold in a statement. “It is illegal, immoral, and wrong for the government to take away our sacred land and give it to a foreign-owned mining corporation for destruction. We await the Court’s decision and thank our thousands of supporters for continuing to pray and speak out for the protection of Oak Flat.”

 Last month, the San Carlos Apache Tribe took its fight to the United Nations, saying the approval of the land deal is a human rights violation. The mine sits on top of a ceremonial ground the Apache call Chí’chil Biłdagoteel, or “Oak Flat,” in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest. The mine is estimated at $64 billion, with 1.787 billion metric tonnes of copper with an average grade of 1.5% copper over the next 60 years. The company says the mine’s life will provide thousands of direct and indirect jobs and will supply nearly 25% of the domestic demand for copper.  

San Carlos Apache Chairman told Native News Online last month that the Tribe wants the EIS to be redone. Leaders say that the U.s. Forest Service published the project’s final environmental impact statement (FEIS) on January 15, 2021, during the final days of the Trump Administration. However, President Biden halted the FEIS on March 1, 2021, saying the project needed more time to consult with Indian Tribes. 

The U.S. Forest Service is court-ordered to issue a notice at least 60 days before issuing its EIS. 

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About The Author
Author: Darren ThompsonEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Darren Thompson (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe) is a staff reporter for Native News Online who is based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Thompson has reported on political unrest, tribal sovereignty, and Indigenous issues for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Indian Country Today, Native News Online, Powwows.com and Unicorn Riot. He has contributed to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Voice of America on various Indigenous issues in international conversation. He has a bachelor’s degree in Criminology & Law Studies from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.