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Citing COVID-19, GOP lawmakers skip Arizona copper mine hearing

GOP lawmakers said one of their members was in quarantine and witnesses friendly to their position couldn't travel because of corona virus restrictions.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., was unable to attend the House Natural Resources Committee hearing.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., was unable to attend the House Natural Resources Committee hearing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Natural Resources Committee Republicans boycotted a hearing Thursday on the impact on Native Americans of a proposed copper mine in Arizona, arguing the event should have been canceled because coronavirus restrictions prevented their witnesses from appearing.

The hearing was to examine the potential environmental and cultural damage from a mine project proposed by Resolution Copper, which acquired federal land under a provision that critics said was sneakily included in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.

The hearing continued as Democrats dismissed their GOP critics and argued Native American tribes affected by the copper mine plan had not had a say and needed to be heard today.

[Coronavirus closes Capitol to tours]

Democrats’ witnesses included tribal community advocates and other experts warning of permanent damage from the deep digging and the risk to water sources.  

“It’s important to hear those voices; they weren’t heard in the middle of the night when it was stuck in that legislation; there was no transparency, there was no honesty, there was no process,” House Natural Resources Chairman Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said. “It was just done at the behest of a major multinational mining company.”  

The provision in the NDAA allowed Resolution Copper to take ownership of a portion of U.S. Forest Service land in the Tonto National Forest in exchange for a separate piece of property the company owned. Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of multinational mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, is expected to dig for copper in the area known as Oak Flat.

Witnesses at the hearing told lawmakers that digging deep and wide craters to reach the copper oar there would decimate areas of cultural and religious importance to native tribes, including burial grounds.

‘Sacred places’

“While we were forced to leave our sacred places at gunpoint, these areas still retain their spiritual, cultural, and historical connection to Apache people,” Naelyn Pike, a youth organizer with the group Apache Stronghold, said at the hearing. “The natural springs and life-giving water will be forever contaminated and depleted.”

The GOP witnesses did not come for the hearing and neither did Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., who is self-quarantined after getting exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

“Witnesses, including a tribal member in support of responsible natural resource development in this area, are incapable to attend due to coronavirus restrictions and quarantine,” House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Rob Bishop, R-Utah., said, in announcing the GOP boycott. “The responsible action would have resulted in postponement so that voices can be heard.” 

Rep. Deb Haaland, one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress, pushed back, saying that tribes that were impacted by the project had not been heard before the provision was passed.

“Native folks and their sacred sites, they’ve waited long enough and this hearing is proper today,” said Haaland, ranking member of the committee. She added that if tribal groups had the kind of lobbying dollars that big companies possess, they would have had the ability to sway Congress against voting for that provision.

Last year, Grijalva introduced a bill that would reverse that land exchange between the Forest Service and Resolution Copper. A companion bill (S.173) was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Neither bill has received a floor vote.

The land had been protected from energy and mineral exploration by a 1955 order signed by President Dwight Eisenhower. The Resolution Mine project would become the largest in the U.S. once fully operational.

Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, D-Ill., drew parallels between the GOP boycott and the continued disregard for Native American issues.

“What have we incorporated from our tragic history and the genocide that’s been inflicted on the Native American community across our country?” García said. “The answer seems to be pretty clear; we discard the significance of what land means to the original inhabitants of this country of these lands … and what sacredness is to these people.”

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