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For Immediate Release, September 14, 2009

Contact:  Taylor McKinnon, Center for Biological Diversity, (928) 310-6713
Chris Krupp, Western Lands Project, (206) 325-3503
Roger Flynn, Western Mining Action Project, (303) 823-5738 
Sandy Bahr, Sierra Club, (602) 253-8633

Court Halts Copper-mine Land Exchange That Would Hurt Desert Species

SAN FRANCISCO— In a major ruling on environmental and public-land law, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco issued its ruling today striking down the federal government’s approval of a land exchange with mining giant Asarco, Inc. The court ruled that the federal Bureau of Land Management had violated various federal laws in agreeing to trade public land with Asarco, which Asarco wanted as part of its expansion of its massive Ray Copper Mine in Arizona. The court held that the agency’s actions were “arbitrary and capricious” and that the agency had not taken the required “hard look” at the exchange’s environmental impacts, including comparing impacts to the land and resources with, vs. without, the exchange.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Western Lands Project, and Sierra Club had challenged the land exchange in order to protect the important wildlife habitat in the area and in nearby wilderness. The lands subject to the exchange provide important habitat for rare plants and animals including desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, and many species of birds. If this proposed land exchange had been allowed to proceed, it would have essentially gutted the White Canyon Resource Conservation Area by allowing mining in a largely pristine place.

“At stake in today’s decision were habitats for desert bighorn sheep, endangered desert tortoise habitat, and other threatened and endangered species,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is a victory for them – a victory that will save lives.”
 
The proposed exchange would have given Asarco 10,976 acres of public lands in exchange for 7,300 acres of the company’s private holdings, and would have facilitated the expansion of Asarco’s Ray Mine, an open-pit copper mine located 65 miles east of Phoenix and 50 miles north of Tucson. By gaining private ownership of the land, Asarco would no longer be subject to federal planning, reclamation, and bonding requirements designed to minimize and mitigate the environmental impacts of hard-rock mining operations.

“This is a great win for the public’s lands and the public interest,” said Don Steuter, conservation chair for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter. “Federal land trades are supposed to serve the public interest, but the projects are often driven by private interests seeking access to federal land and resources. In this case, the public land slated for trade contains rare perennial waters and a priority reintroduction site for bighorn sheep.”

Located on Mineral Creek, a tributary of the Gila River, the Ray Mine has been an open-pit operation since 1948. Environmental contamination at Ray has been so severe that Asarco has been cited for repeated violations of the Clean Water Act.

“The court upheld a longstanding principle of the National Environmental Policy Act: The public has a right to an unvarnished evaluation of the impacts of a proposal,” said Chris Krupp, Western Lands Project staff attorney. “Here, the record shows that the Bureau’s analysis was so biased that a sister agency – the Environmental Protection Agency – chastised the BLM for its one-sided review.”

“The court correctly found that BLM violated numerous federal laws, including the requirement the BLM fully review the environmental impacts from future mining and that the land exchange be ‘in the public interest’,” said Roger Flynn, an attorney with Western Mining Action Project who represented the groups. “The company would use the land mostly for dumping waste and running equipment. It’s about the worst purpose you can think of for trading away public lands.”

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The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 225,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild lands.

The Western Lands Project is a Seattle-based non‑profit that operates throughout the West, advocating reform in federal land exchange policy, while monitoring land trades and sales to ensure the public’s interest is upheld.

The Sierra Club is a non-profit, public interest environmental organization with over 700,000 members (12,000 of whom reside in Arizona) whose mission is to explore, enjoy and protect the wild places of the earth; to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; and to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment. Sierra Club has a strong interest in public lands in Arizona and has long advocated for protection and management that sustains the ecological integrity of the lands. Our members enjoy the public lands and utilize them for hiking, backpacking, hunting, and wildlife viewing, among other activities.

The groups were represented in their appeal by attorneys Roger Flynn and Jeff Parsons of the Western Mining Action Project, a nonprofit legal advocacy firm based in Lyons, Colorado representing public interests on mining issues throughout the West.


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