Razing Arizona: The spiritual battle to save Oak Flat

Former Chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe Wendsler Nosie Sr.

Story and photos by Jeff Kronenfeld

Religious leaders from across the country trekked to Oak Flat Campground 60 miles east of Phoenix on December 13.

Christians, Jews, Muslims and practitioners of several Native American faiths prayed together with one aim. Leading the motley congregation was former Chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe Wendsler Nosie Sr. In late November, he made the over 40-mile journey from the reservation to Oak Flat on foot. Since then, he has called these sacred Emory oak groves home. As night fell and the group nestled closer to the fire, it was easy to see why so many tribes consider this spot holy. Nosie Sr. described it as his religion’s equivalent of Mount Sinai. It was also easy to see what the motley congregation was praying to save Oak Flat from — the Resolution Copper Mine.

Sinking a Sky Island      

Next year, the Forest Service must exchange a 2,422-acre plot of land, including Oak Flat, to Resolution Copper. Once the exchange is completed, Chi’chil Bildagoteel — the Apache name for Oak Flat — is doomed. The mine will be the deepest in North America, plunging nearly two miles below the surface. As a direct result, a pit 1,115-feet deep and 1.8 miles wide will swallow Oak Flat over the next half-century.

Vanessa Nosie, Nosie Sr.’s daughter, in the center speaking to the assembled religious leaders and activists.

The staggering sum of 1.4 billion tons of material will be removed, roughly 200 times the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Since only 1.54 percent of this is copper, most ends up as a toxic mining byproduct called tailings. The majority of this will be piped through sections of National Forest land to an open-air storage facility expected to grow to more than five square miles, according to a report from the Forest Service, called the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). It predicts the effects of the project based on Resolution Copper’s official plan of operations. The company will legally take over Oak Flat and the surrounding area 60 days after the publication of the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) next fall.

Surrounding communities have played hot potato with where to locate this mountain of poisonous wet sand for years. Skunk Camp, 12 miles southeast of Oak Flat, is the current preferred location. The DEIS maintains no stormwater from tailings or mining facilities would be released during the mine’s more than half-century operational life. Such optimistic predictions are not uncontested. Even the DEIS acknowledges “public apprehension” over the potential for a catastrophic failure of the proposed 490-foot tall dam. If you are picturing a sturdy concrete wall like the dams along the Colorado River, think again. This one will mostly be composed of the tailings themselves. A collapse of the Bruhmadinho Dam in Brazil earlier this year had area residents particularly concerned. That mad-made disaster killed over 250 people.  

A group of 18 organizations with expertise in the environment, mining and social issues hired professional scientific consultants to help draft a 432-page comment document arguing the DEIS is “inherently flawed.” They maintain the report should be redone. The tailings dam, in particular, is of concern, given the consequences if it fails. Attached to the comment is a paper by Dr. Steven Emerman, a professor in the Department of Earth Science at Utah Valley University, which notes runout could spread from 200 to 370 miles downstream. Troubling concerns about the ability of the dam to withstand earthquakes are also raised. Despite the incredible risk of something going wrong, to say nothing of the predictable externalities, the only way for the people of Arizona to halt the project is through an act of Congress.

Former Chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe Wendsler Nosie Sr, talking with some activists and religious leaders at Oak Flat.

The Midnight Rider

The San Carlos Apache Tribe and other opponents of the proposed mine successfully lobbied against the land grab for a decade. As a tribal leader, Nosie Sr. helped organize many of these victories. Unable to succeed in the light of day, the land exchange was hidden deep in a 1,700-page draft of the bill authorizing the military’s annual budget for 2015. It was released to the public less than 24-hours before the bill was voted on. This made it impossible to fund the nation’s defense without approving the corporate handout. Its inclusion in the defense spending bill seems particularly strange considering Resolution Copper is owned by Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, a pair of foreign mining companies.

The copper is not designated for the military or even domestic consumption. Much of the metal could be sent overseas, like the mine’s profits. Attaching unrelated amendments to appropriation bills at the last minute is known as a midnight rider. The practice allows wealthy special interest groups from around the world to corrupt the legislative process in Washington. “That’s how they got this place, really undermining the whole system of what we believe as Americans,” Nosie Sr. explained.

A Sacred Stronghold

For generations, the Apache have considered Oak Flat holy. They’re not alone. The DEIS acknowledges at least 11 tribes are “culturally affiliated with the lands that would be affected.” Contained within the area are ancestral graves, sites used for religious ceremonies, sacred springs, medicinal plant-gathering localities, and other religiously significant features. For these and other reasons, Oak Flat is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a traditional cultural property. None of the 11 tribes supports the project’s destruction of the ancestral sites.

A flag brought by one of the guests.

Nosie Sr.’s connection to the place is deeply personal as well. For many years, the Apache faith was actively suppressed by the U.S. government. Preventing the tribe from accessing Oak Flat for religious ceremonies was part of this. Only recently have the Apaches been able to renew this ancient tradition. Some of Nosie Sr.’s granddaughters held their Sunrise Dance, a coming-of-age ceremony, at the site. Eventually, the crater formed by the mine will once again cause the Apaches to be denied access. This is part of the reason why Nosie Sr. and so many of his family members volunteer with Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit dedicated to defending Native American holy sites and religious freedom. “For my middle daughter and a couple of other girls that had their ceremonies here, they knocked down those barriers of 150 years of not being able to conduct a ceremony here,” said Vanessa Nosie, the daughter of Nosie Sr.

Potential Impacts on Public Health and the Environment

Resolution Copper Mine will also negatively impact the surrounding environment. The DEIS states up to 17,500 acres of soil could be disturbed. Further, it concedes soil health and productivity impacts may last, “centuries to millennia.” The report acknowledges the subsidence pit, tailings, and other surface structures could negatively impact 50 special status wildlife species. The Arizona hedgehog cactus would lose crucial habitat. Fish like the Gila chub, birds like the Yuma clapper rail and even ocelots will lose this northernmost outpost of the Madrean Sky Islands.

(L-R): Former Chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe Wendsler Nosie Sr.; Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the PPC; and Rev. William Barber, also a co-chair of the PPC.

Many more species, including humans, will be impacted by the effects on water. The DEIS estimates the mine could use in excess of 192 billion gallons of external water throughout its operation. That’s a little less than all the water in California’s Salton Sea.

Operating the mine will require draining more than 28 billion gallons from two local aquifers, including the deep groundwater system. This combined with reductions in surface runoff will dry up more than a dozen groundwater-dependent ecosystems, including springs considered sacred by Native American tribes. Further, groundwater supplies in Superior and other surrounding areas could experience a drop in the water table. One of the vertical mine shafts is already completed and has been dewatering since 2009. Water quality in the area will take a hit as well, despite statements to the contrary in the DEIS. “All of the tailings facilities would lose seepage with poor water quality to the environment,” the Forest Service conceded.   

The Last Stand

Another guest speaks to the assembled group at Oak Flat.

Nosie Sr. has walked from the San Carlos Apache Reservation to Oak Flat every year since the midnight rider passed. For him, it is a journey home. He did not walk alone, just as he does not stand alone now. Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, introduced the Save Oak Flat Act to the House of Representatives earlier this year.

Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a senate version as well. Religious leaders, activists, and even rock climbers from across the country recently converged on Oak Flat in a show of solidarity. Members of tribes from throughout Arizona, California, North Dakota, and other states also heeded the call. Many were associated with The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (PPC). Over a dozen other groups and practitioners of as many faiths were present as well. They have gathered over 70,000 signatures for an online petition supporting the legislation protecting Oak Flat. Many of those present during the gathering plan to support Nosie Sr. when he testifies before Congress next year. “This is a struggle for religious freedom, for religious rights, and the protection of the earth and water,” said Liz Theoharis, co-chair of PPC. “We’ll be there to support Wendsler and folks as we ask Congress to do right because it’s still within their power.”