Copper-mine land swap moves closer to reality

We will lose this…

WASHINGTON – Democrats and Republicans on the Senate energy committee confirmed Monday that they have reached a compromise on a controversial federal land swap that could lead to the development of North America’s largest copper mine near Superior.

The bill is expected to be considered and approved by panel members on Wednesday, said a spokesman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., serves on the committee and has been pushing for a vote to take place before year’s end. He has been trying for about four years to win approval for the project, which developers estimate could bring $46.4 billion to Arizona over the expected 66-year life of the mine.

The compromise is a big step forward for a bill that looked all but dead in June, when U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department officials appeared to be backing off their previous support for the project at a hearing before the Senate energy committee, citing opponents’ concerns about the project’s potential effect on the environment and on lands with cultural value to Native American tribes.

McCain angrily blasted the Obama administration at that meeting but has been working with it and its Democratic allies in the Senate ever since to craft a deal. At McCain’s invitation, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited the proposed mine site in August. Negotiations seemed to get serious after that.

On Wednesday, the committee will consider a McCain-Bingaman amendment that addresses the environmental and cultural concerns, said Brooke Buchanan, a McCain spokeswoman.

Details won’t be revealed until the meeting.

“The proposed McCain-Bingaman amendment represents a bipartisan compromise and a path forward for the land exchange and the mine,” Buchanan said.

Under the original proposal, Resolution Copper Co., a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, would get about 2,400 acres of land in the Oak Flat area of the Tonto National Forest in return for giving more than 5,500 acres of environmentally sensitive land throughout Arizona to the federal government.

Mine supporters say the project could bring about 1,400 jobs to the economically troubled Superior area.

Environmentalists say the project could threaten the area’s water supply and ruin some of the state’s most pristine recreation areas. Tribal leaders say it would destroy sites containing religious and cultural artifacts.

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., has introduced legislation in the House to allow the land swap. It has not received a hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee.

by Erin Kelly

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