WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate passed a measure authorizing the nation’s defense programs Friday, and along with it managed to give lands sacred to Native Americans to a foreign company that owns a uranium mine with Iran.
The $585 billion National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 is one of the must-pass pieces of legislation that Congress moves every year. But like they did in attaching extraneous riders to the must-pass government funding bill, lawmakers used the defense bill as a vehicle to pass a massive public lands package.
The bill sailed through on a vote of 89 to 11.
Many of the land measures were popular. But one, the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act, had twice failed to win support in the House of Representatives, blocked both by conservationists and conservatives.
The deal gives a subsidiary of the Australian-English mining firm Rio Tinto 2,400 acres of the Tonto National Forest in exchange for several other parcels so it can mine a massive copper deposit.
The Iran connection comes from a uranium mine in Namibia, in which Tehran has owned a 15 percent stake since the days of the shah.
Rio Tinto, which removed Iran’s two members of the mine board in 2012, has argued that Iran gets no benefit from the property, that there is no active partnership, and that it has discussed the issue with the U.S. State Department to ensure that no sanctions against Iran are violated.
A State Department spokesperson confirmed that officials had discussed the site, but declined to say that they could assure there were no violations of sanctions.
“We are aware of the mine in question and have discussed relevant compliance issues with the company,” the spokesperson said.
The official also declined to say if, as might be expected, Iran would be able to benefit from the mine if Secretary of State John Kerry is successful in negotiations to limit the regime’s nuclear aspirations, and sanctions are lifted. “We are not going to speculate on any hypotheticals,” the official said. A Rio Tinto official also declined to speculate, but noted that under the current sanctions and Namibian law, it's impossible to buy out Iran's share or sever the tie.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) mounted a bid to strip the entire lands package from the bill, but secured only 18 votes in his favor.
It’s not only people concerned about any benefit Iran might get who were worried about giving American forest land to a foreign firm that has such a connection.
Native Americans, particularly the Apache tribe in the area, say digging a massive mine under their ancestral lands will destroy sacred ceremonial and burial grounds.
Rio Tinto says it will work closely with the tribes to ensure their concerns are heard, and will work with the U.S. Forest Service to protect the environment.
The measure was added into the NDAA largely thanks to the efforts of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who, along with fellow Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, sees the project as an economic boon that will create 3,700 jobs over several decades.
Flake acknowledged that the deal never would have passed on its own, even as he lamented the process that got it through the Senate.
“It’s never good to see big packages with so many things in them -- that’s what we want to get away from,” Flake said. “But it’s been very difficult to move individual pieces of legislation over the last few years.”
In this case, the addition of the Arizona swap and the other land measures were never discussed in public, and were added during secret negotiations between the House and Senate Armed Services Committee. the deal was never publicly revealed until the House started work on passing the entire defense bill last week.
It will become law as soon as President Barack Obama signs it. Rio Tinto, though subsidiary Resolution Copper, will take possession of the land a year later. Although the land will then be private property and federal environmental reviews will no longer be enforceable, the company said in a statement after the measure passed that it would abide by such reviews. It also pledged to be a good neighbor:
“Resolution Copper Mining is pleased that the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act passed the House of Representatives and the Senate with strong bipartisan support. Passage of the legislation means that Resolution Copper can move forward with the development of this world-class ore body which will create approximately 3,700 jobs, generate over $60 billion in economic impact and result in almost $20 billion in state and federal tax payments,” said project director Andrew Taplin.
"There is much more work to be done before commercial mining can begin and Resolution Copper looks forward to working with all stakeholders as we continue to progress through the regulatory review process toward responsible development and operation of a world-class copper mine that will safely produce over 25 percent of the current annual demand for copper in the United States.”
Once the legislation is signed into law by President Obama, Resolution Copper will focus on the comprehensive environmental and regulatory review under NEPA, where there will be broad public consultation, government-to-government consultation with Arizona Native American tribes and a comprehensive valuation appraisal of the copper deposit as required by Congress.
Resolution Copper plans to work to expand existing partnerships and create new ones with neighboring communities and Native American Tribes. The company will endeavor to hire locally and regionally whenever possible.
The heart of the legislation is the exchange of 2,400 acres of federally owned land above the copper deposit for 5,300 acres of land owned by Resolution Copper composed of valuable recreational, conservation and culturally significant land throughout Arizona. Congressional leaders made significant improvements to the legislation to address community, environmental and tribal concerns. These changes include provisions for completion of a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prior to the exchange of title, extraordinary protections for historic Apache Leap, and safe access to the Oak Flat Campground after the exchange has been completed.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.