June 25 (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court has ruled that the
federal government may give thousands of acres in Arizona to Rio
Tinto Plc for a copper mine, upholding a lower
court's ruling and rejecting a request from Native Americans who
said the land has religious and cultural import.
The 2-1 ruling from the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals, issued late Friday night, essentially defers
to a 2014 decision made by the U.S. Congress and then-President
Barack Obama to give the land to Rio for its Resolution Copper
project as part of a complex land swap deal.
Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit group comprised of members of
the San Carlos Apache tribe and others, said it would appeal to
the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Arizona dispute centers on the federally owned Oak Flat
Campground, which some Apache consider home to deities and which
sits atop a reserve of more than 40 billion pounds of copper. 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 that worship
Rio and minority partner BHP Group Plc have already
spent more than $1 billion on the project without producing any
While two judges said they were sensitive to Apaches'
religious concerns, they stressed their ruling was narrowly
tailored to the question about whether the government can do
what it wants with its own land and whether the land transfer
would prevent Apaches from practicing their religion.
"As we reach this conclusion, we do not rejoice. Rather, we
recognize the deep ties that the Apache have to Oak Flat," the
court said it its 58-page ruling. "This dispute must be resolved
as are most others in our pluralistic nation: through the
The dissenting judge said it was "absurd" and "illogical" to
think the land swap would not impede Apaches' religious rights.
A bill under consideration in the U.S. Congress would undo
the 2014 land swap, though its fate is unclear. President Joe
Biden took steps to pause the land swap last year, though he has
few options to delay it indefinitely.
"All the evidence suggests that the land exchange was meant
to facilitate mineral exploration activities nothing more and
nothing less," the court said in the ruling. The proposed mine
project comes as demand jumps for copper 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 after 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 with Apaches and others opposed to the mine.
"There is significant local support for the project, however, we
respect the views of groups who oppose it and will continue our
efforts to understand, address and mitigate these concerns,"
said Rio spokesperson Simon Letendre.
Mila Besich, the Democratic mayor of Superior, the town
closest to the campground, and a supporter of the mine, said she
was relieved by the ruling. "The 9th Circuit ruling provides
further confirmation that the permitting must continue," Besich
Representatives for BHP were not immediately available to
comment. Terry Rambler, chairman of the San Carlos Apache tribe,
was not immediately available to comment.
(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder
Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)