US court upholds Arizona land swap deal for Rio Tinto copper mine

A sign adorns the building where mining company Rio Tinto has its office in Perth, Western Australia, November 19, 2015. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo

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June 25 (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court has ruled the federal government can give thousands of acres in Arizona to Rio Tinto Plc (RIO.AX) (RIO.L) for a copper mine, upholding the decision from a lower court and rejecting a claim by Native Americans who said the land had religious and cultural significance.

The 2-1 ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th United States Circuit Court of Appeals, released late Friday night, essentially defers to a 2014 decision by the US Congress and the then president. , Barack Obama, to give land to Rio for his Project Copper Resolution as part of a complex land swap deal.

Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit group made up of members of the San Carlos Apache tribe and others, said it would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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The Arizona dispute centers on the Oak Flat Federal Campground, which some Apache believe is the home of deities and which sits atop a more than 40 billion pound copper hoard. If a mine is built, it would create a crater 2 miles (3 km) wide and 1,000 feet (304 m) deep that would destroy this place of worship.

Rio and its minority partner BHP Group Plc have already spent more than $1 billion on the project without producing any copper.

While two judges said they were sensitive to the religious concerns of the Apaches, they pointed out that their decision was closely tailored to the question of whether the government can do what it wants with its own land and whether the transfer of land would prevent the Apaches to practice their religion.

“As we come to this conclusion, we do not rejoice. On the contrary, we recognize the deep ties the Apaches have to Oak Flat,” the court said in its 58-page decision. “This dispute must be resolved like most others in our pluralistic nation: through the political process.”

The dissenting judge said it was “absurd” and “illogical” to think the land swap wouldn’t interfere with Apache religious rights.

A bill pending in the US Congress would undo the 2014 land swap, though its fate is unclear. President Joe Biden took steps to put the land swap on hold last year, though he has few options to delay it indefinitely.

“All the evidence suggests that the land swap was intended to facilitate mineral exploration activities – nothing more and nothing less,” the court said in its decision. The proposed mine project comes as demand for copper increases to make electric vehicles (EVs) and other electronic devices.

Wendsler Nosie, one of the leaders of Apache Stronghold, denounced the decision. “My children, grandchildren and the generations that follow them deserve to practice our traditions at Oak Flat,” he said.

Rio, which is based in Australia and Britain, said it would continue to talk to Apaches and others opposed to the mine. “The project has significant local support, but we respect the views of groups opposing it and will continue our efforts to understand, address and alleviate these concerns,” Rio spokesman Simon Letendre said.

Mila Besich, Democratic mayor of Superior, the town closest to the campground, and a supporter of the mine, said she was relieved by the decision. “The 9th Circuit’s ruling provides further confirmation that the clearance should continue,” Besich said.

BHP representatives were not immediately available for comment. Terry Rambler, president of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, was not immediately available for comment.

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Reporting by Ernest Scheyder Editing by Chizu Nomiyama

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