In a May 2005 meeting with Resolution Copper Mining, a company trying to engineer a federal land swap near Superior, Ariz., Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) allegedly told company officials that he would not support the deal unless they bought his former business partner’s property.
“No Sandlin property, no bill,” Renzi threatened, according to the Feb. 22 federal indictment of the Congressman, referring to James Sandlin, Renzi’s former business partner who owed the Congressman money.
Yet, after that fateful meeting, Renzi twice introduced the land swap bill even though the company balked at his request. The Arizona Republican first introduced the bill on May 25, 2005. He introduced it again on Dec. 5, 2006.
After the FBI raided Renzi’s family business in April 2007, Renzi removed himself from the bill, according to press reports. The cause was taken up by Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.), who introduced legislation on Aug. 1, 2007, along with Arizona Reps. Jeff Flake (R), John Shadegg (R) and Harry Mitchell (D).
Neither Renzi’s nor Pastor’s office responded to queries about their efforts.
Neither of Renzi’s bills (H.R. 2618 and H.R. 6373) included the controversial parcel belonging to Sandlin. The company refused to buy the Sandlin property after learning of Sandlin’s relationship to the Congressman.
But according to those close to the land swap, the legislation would have advanced Resolution Copper’s interests in pushing the land deal through Congress, despite opposition from some environmental groups, rock climbers and local Indian tribes.
“It seems like [Renzi] was a big proponent, from our perspective,” said Sandy Bahr, the conservation outreach director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club.
Bahr added that Renzi was “critical in getting rolling” negotiations in Congress, rather than forcing Resolution Copper to go through the more lengthy administrative process that would have opened the deal to public review.
“The perception was that he stopped working it when it became public that there was an investigation,” Bahr said.
Others said that besides its introduction, Renzi did little to lobby for the deal. In fact, an August 2006 editorial in The Arizona Republic chided Renzi, who represents the sprawling Arizona 1st district where the copper mining would take place, for not being more aggressive.
“Renzi needs to take the lead again and get the issue moving,” said the newspaper. “But if he can’t bring himself to act in Arizona’s best interest, he should step aside and let another House Member — perhaps Rep. Jeff Flake — take the leadership role.”
Flake said that before the bill can move, some issues need to be worked out between Resolution Copper and the Indian tribes. “But this bill has the potential to drastically bolster domestic copper production,” he said.
Similar legislation has been sought in the Senate by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and co-sponsored by likely GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). The Kyl-McCain bill never contained any reference to the Sandlin parcel, either.
In March 2006, Kyl called the bill a “culmination of months of negotiation with members of the rock-climbing community, local and state stakeholders, and other interested parties.”
“This is a win for Arizona environmentally and economically,” Kyl said.
The deal sought by Resolution Copper would exchange 5,000 acres of non-federal land for 3,025 acres of federal land, plus $7.5 million. It would allow mining on land that was expressly protected from it in a 1954 executive order by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In the bill’s current form, Resolution Copper has agreed to a 695-acre conservation easement near Apache Leap, which is viewed by local Indian tribes as sacred because dozens of their ancestors died there rather than surrender to U.S. troops.
The company also agreed to help finance a new campground to replace the existing one at Oak Flat, and support a new rock-climbing area known as Tam O’Shanter. The company already owns mineral rights to most of the property with the exception of Oak Flat, and is trying to consolidate property ownership with its mineral rights.
A Resolution Copper spokesman said the benefits of the swap to the federal and state governments are “very significant” and that the mine could yield “up to 20 percent of our nation’s copper demands.”
“This exchange will forever protect — and place in the public hands — thousands of acres of sensitive, pristine environmental properties,” the spokesman said.
Proponents include the The Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Arizona and limited support from Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), who wrote in August 2007 letters to Pastor and Kyl that while the swap might benefit the state economically, environmental and valuation concerns needed to be addressed.
But the outlook for the bill appears dim, at least in the House, and not just because it is caught up in Renzi’s legal problems.
Several concerns arose in a Nov. 1 meeting of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
Subcommittee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said he agreed with other members of the delegation to hold a hearing but does not support the bill or envision it advancing in the near future.
Spokeswoman Natalie Luna said that Grijalva was primarily opposed because of the swap’s impact on the San Carlos Apache Tribe.
There are “more issues and problems than solutions” Luna said. “Consequently, the chairman doesn’t foresee pushing it through to markup in the near future unless he is overruled by [Natural Resources] Chairman [Nick] Rahall [D-W.Va.].”
The Sierra Club’s Bahr testified that by seeking Congressional approval, Resolution Copper had avoided scrutiny under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Bahr argued that there was no way to estimate the value of the federal land that would be ceded to the mining company, which says it can extract up to 48 billion pounds of copper over 40 years.
Bahr worried about the impact on the local water supply and the destination for the mining waste.
The swap is “a huge problem in addition to the fact that it’s connected, indirectly anyway, to Congressman Renzi’s legal problems,” Bahr said later. “What they’re offering is chump change.”