Monday, November 16, 2020

The Coming Crater in Arizona: The Lame Duck Administration Fast-Tracks Destruction of Sacred Lands

Sometimes issues keep coming up. I hadn't heard of updates of the Oak Flat Controversy in a couple of years, but with the waning days of the current lame duck administration, the issue has arisen again as the out-going president attempts of fast-track a controversial land swap to enable the opening of a massive copper mine. I posted the following several times as the debates continued over the years. It was also one of the oddest geological issues I've ever come across. My brother took me to Oak Flat during a visit to the Phoenix area, and it wasn't until later that I found out the insidious actions taking place in Congress to destroy the area (for money, of course). How often do we hear of plans to produce a hole larger than Meteor Crater? This is at the expense of lands sacred to the San Carlos Apache Tribe, the Tonto Apache Tribe, the White Mountain Apache Tribe, the Yavapai-Apache Nation, the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe, the Gila River Indian Community, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the Hopi Tribe, and the Pueblo of Zuni. Please read on to find out what is being attempted in this sacred place.

When I see a representative insisting that a law must be followed ("Rep. Gosar is pressuring the Forest Service to enforce its rules that limit camping at Oak Flat to 14 consecutive days") when he helped subvert law to bring this situation about, I feel sick about our political system. In any case, like the title says, Arizona is going to get another Meteor Crater-sized hole, only bigger, and we know where and why it is going to happen...
This is NOT a killer asteroid entering the Earth's atmosphere. It is a sun dog over Oak Flat Campground near Superior, Arizona. Oak Flat is going to become a gigantic crater.

...because it won't be a meteor that causes it. It won't be an atomic bomb test. And it won't be because of aliens like those stupid ones in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The giant crater will be entirely the work of human beings, and gravity. And it will destroy a place that is sacred to many, and was given protection by a Republican president 60 years ago.
Meteor Crater, Arizona is probably the most famous impact crater on the planet, and is about three-quarters of a mile across, and about 550 feet deep. The coming crater is expected to be about a mile across, and as much as 1,000 feet deep. How in the world is such a thing going to happen?
The town of Superior, Arizona is like many old mining towns of the west. It's depressed, it's poor, and few inhabitants really have a reason to stay. People made a good living out here at one time, mining and smelting copper from huge open pits nearby. But the mines closed decades ago.

But the copper wasn't all gone. With prices up, there is renewed interest, and Resolution Copper has outlined a huge ore body, one of the largest in the world. But there's a problem.
It's 7,000 feet beneath the surface.

The normal approach, open-pit mining, won't work. It's far too deep. Normal tunnel mining won't cut it either, because although the ore body is huge, it is low-grade, averaging around 1.5% copper, instead of the 5% or so that is required for profitable tunnel mining. So the company proposes to go after the ore using a process called panel caving (a type of block caving). They propose to start underneath the ore body, design a system of collection tunnels, and then fracture the rock above, allowing it to fall into the collection areas where the ore will be removed.
The process will allow the mining of vast amounts of ore, but what they will be doing will amount to removing an entire mountain from beneath the surface. Holes of such size cannot be maintained as open space underground, so the mine will collapse in a supposedly controlled manner. At the end of the mine's usable "life", the crater is expected to be about a mile wide and as much as 1,000 feet deep. Bigger than Meteor Crater.
There are huge social and political issues. Many people are fully supportive because money, but it's never entirely clear who will truly benefit, and who will actually get the jobs, and which political entities will get the tax revenue to support the regional infrastructure. And there is no guarantee that the mining company itself will maintain economic viability for the next sixty years. Such things are hard to predict, and the American West is littered with abandoned and depressed towns that were promised much and ultimately received little.
And then there is the matter of honor and history. Soldiers chose to die here, defending their homeland and families. When all was lost, more than four dozen of them chose to jump off the cliffs rather than be taken by the enemy. It was around 1870, and the deaths occurred only 1,500 feet from the edge of the proposed crater.

If the soldiers were U.S. military, I suspect there would be a cacophony of voices raised in righteous anger about the desecration of hallowed ground, and historical heritage and all that. But no, the warriors were Apache. The copper mining company insists that they respect the Native American heritage, and they make all kinds of public relations noise, but a great many local tribes and nations are deeply opposed to the operation.
I'm okay with weighing the pros and cons of a project like this, assuming that all parties are heard, and their concerns dealt with. But there has to be a willingness to say no, that some places should not be destroyed for the sake of profits over all other factors. I'm disturbed when those with the money are the only ones heard in the discussion and that there is an assumption that it will go forward no matter what. But ultimately politics requires a fair and open vote in Congress. And that's where the problem lies. The project will require a land swap that gives up federal land for "ecologically sensitive" lands elsewhere. And Congress has turned it down a number of times.
So in a bit of bipartisan corruption, the land swap was placed in a piece of legislation, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that had to be passed in 2014. It was a betrayal of trust on the part of people like Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake (speaking of corruption, Rep.Rick Renzi is in prison over crimes related to the land swap; and Senator Flake was once a lobbyist for Rio Tinto, one of the mine's corporate partners). This is the kind of political shenanigans that tells me that these plans need to be tabled for awhile. This isn't the way things should be done in our society.
How badly do we need this copper, really? And at what true cost? There may be issues to be worked out, but rushing this because of a lame-duck presidential action is not the way to solve things.

For a current perspective of the issues involved, and for info on the Save Oak Flat Act in the U.S. House of Representative please read this article just published in azcentral by Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva  on the issue, and an earlier article about Congressional activity in March. 

1 comment:

solarity said...

We have enormous amounts of largely vacant unused land in the western US. Mining under a relatively obscure one-mile section is going to have negative effects on virtually no one.

Economic activity, including mining raw materials, is a necessary side-effect of the lives we collectively choose to live. Your rant against it is just a thinly-veiled form of NIMBYism and unworthy of a scientist of your caliber.