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Review deadline changed for Arizona mining project

December 15, 2020 GMT

PHOENIX (AP) — The U.S. Forest Service has moved up the deadline to complete its review of the Resolution Copper mine east of Phoenix to the end of the year, accelerating the project before President Donald Trump leaves office.

The Tonto National Forest, where the mine would be located, must now submit a final environmental impact statement by Dec. 31. The release of that document will set the clock ticking for a land exchange that will be finalized within 60 days, meaning environmental groups have less time to mount their opposition.

The final document was previously expected in 2021 or 2022.

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Opponents have argued the federal agency was pressured to issue a quick approval under Trump.

Center for Biological Diversity advocate Randy Serraglio said companies have often applied political pressure to advance projects, something he said has been done for other projects under the Trump administration.

“It seems clear they want to get it out while Trump is still president,” he told The Arizona Republic. “It’s not clear whether they’ll be able to do that or not or whether they can do it legally.”

Serraglio said the location wasn’t identified in the draft impact statement released in August 2019, so the public has not had a chance to comment. He also said required appraisals have not been completed.

To meet the new deadline, a statement by the Tonto National Forest said the appraisals must be completed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must issue a biological opinion under the Endangered Species Act, the Forest Service must sign an agreement that the work complies with the National Historic Preservation Act, tribal consultation must be completed and more.

The U.S. Forest Service said in an emailed statement that the new date doesn’t reflect an acceleration of the process under the National Environmental Policy Act or the schedule of proposed actions.

If approved, the project would use block caving to extract the remaining ore, most of which is 7,000 feet below ground level. The method involves selectively excavating the ground underneath an ore body, which will collapse under its own weight in a controlled manner.

“Block caving is safe, environmentally sound, and cost-effective for mining a large, deep orebody,” Resolution Copper said in an email.

Resolution Copper said the mine could have a $61 billion economic impact over the project’s expected 60 years and employ up to 1,500 people.

The Arizona Mining Reform Coalition and other environmental groups have argued that the process will turn Oak Flat, which many tribes consider sacred, into a sinkhole up to 1,000 feet deep.

Some hydrologists also say that groundwater will be severely affected, both by contamination and by disturbing underwater storage and flows. Resolution Copper disputed those allegations.