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Oak Flat copper and molybdenum mining, USA


Oak Flat is a sacred site in the homeland of the Apache Nation who know it as Chi’chil Biłdagoteel. It is also held sacred by Zuni, Yavapai, O’odham and Hopi people [14]. For centuries, people have visited Chi’chil Bildagoteel to hold ceremonies and to collect acorns and medicinal plants [8]. The area contains hundreds of petroglyphs, historic sites, and sacred springs [6][8][14]. The Apache have never lost their relationship with Chi’chil  Bildagoteel, although during some of their history the U.S. government has not allowed them to use the land [11][14].

The ceremonial grounds of Chi’chil Bildagoteel are threatened by the Resolution Copper Mine, a joint venture owned by Rio Tinto and BHP. The copper deposit is estimated to be the largest in North America, producing up to 25% of projected US demands [2].  Demand for copper is expected to rise as the energy industry transitions away from fossil fuels, and the auto industry begins manufacturing more electric vehicles [6].

Oak Flat is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, and was protected from mining in the 1950s, when it was listed as a Traditional Cultural Property on the National Register of Historic Places. The Resolution Copper mine was proposed in 2004, and in the following eight years more than a dozen congressional bills were proposed to transfer ownership of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper. Finally, in 2014 a rider transferring ownership of Oak Flat to the mining company was attached to the must-pass 2015 Defense Appropriations Act minutes before it was voted on in congress [6]. This last-minute provision granted 2,422 acres of the Tonto National Forest including the Oak Flat area to Resolution Copper in exchange for 5,344 acres of private land. A draft EIA for the project released in August 2019 detailed environmental, social and economic consequences so complex that it took the Forest Service more than 1,300 pages to lay them out [13]. The final EIA was released in January 2020, and the Trump administration approved the land swap. The non-profit Apache Stronghold filed a lawsuit contesting the land swap in 2019, and the incoming Biden administration withdrew the EIA in March 2020 for further evaluation [5]. 

In 2021 President Biden’s Department of Justice argued in favor of the land swap during court proceedings. Ruling on the case is expected in 2022. The Department of  Justice argued in a legal brief that the protection of Oak Flat would require an act of Congress [4]. Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva has introduced the Save Oak Flat Act at least four times [9][10].  

The Apache have established an encampment to protect Oak Flat with four crosses representing the entire surrounding sacred area, including its water, animals, oak trees, and other plants central to the tribal identity [11]. Apache Stronghold has led a multi-pronged effort with allies employing political, grassroots, artistic, nonprofit and media strategies [15] Regional Indigenous people have marched at least six times to protest the land swap. The Apache Stronghold camp has been targeted by vandals: on March 17, 2018, the four sacred crosses were ripped from the ground or destroyed [15].

The Resolution Copper deposit is more than 1,300 meters beneath the surface, and the company proposes to use block-caving to extract the ore: tunnels would be constructed beneath the surface, the ore is withdrawn, and the area above the deposit would collapse into a subsidence about 1.8 miles (3 km) long and 800-1115 feet (245-340 m) deep. The crushed ore would be hauled halfway to the surface — about 1,050 meters up (3,500 feet) — and shipped to a processing plant by conveyor. The EIA projects that Chi’chil Bildagoteel would be, “directly and permanently damaged” by the subsidence [1]. Tailings from the mine would occupy 2,000 to 6,000 acres (depending on the selected alternative for the tailings facility). The draft EIA states that between 14 and 16 sacred springs would be impacted by the loss of groundwater, [1] although other studies place the number at forty-six [14]. Burial sites are also likely to be impacted [1][14]. 

The EIA projects that the mine would consume more than 500,000 acre-feet (600,000,000 m3) of water from the Colorado River and from precious groundwater supplies, changing the flow of surrounding rivers and springs; mining waste could contaminate groundwater and streams [13]. The EIA also projects strains on municipal services in the nearby town of Superior and increases housing costs [13]. The mining would disturb the habitats of endangered species like the Western yellow-billed cuckoo and the Southwestern willow flycatcher [13].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Oak Flat copper and molybdenum mining, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Arizona
Location of conflict:Superior, Pinal county
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Water access rights and entitlements
Mineral ore exploration
Tailings from mines
Mineral processing
Specific commodities:Copper

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Total projection of 40 billion tons of copper produced over 40-50 years

Project area:4,050 to 7,080 hectares
Level of Investment for the conflictive project$2,000,000,000 to date [2]
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:Several Indigenous nations, other nearby residents
Start of the conflict:01/01/2004
Company names or state enterprises:Resolution Copper Co. from United States of America
Rio Tinto (Rio Tinto ) from United Kingdom
BHP Billiton (BHP) from United Kingdom
Relevant government actors:USDA Forest Service
Cooperating Agencies: Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, Arizona Department of Water Resources, Arizona Game and Fish Department, Arizona State Land Department, Arizona State
Mine Inspector, Bureau of Land Management, Pinal County Air Quality Control District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Apache Stronghold (,
Endorsing organizations: National Congress of American Indians, National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, Indian Land Tenure Association, Americans for Indian Opportunity, Coalition of Large Tribes, Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes, United Southern and Eastern Tribes, Inter Tribal Association of Arizona, All Pueblo Council of Governors, Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, Inc., Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, Native American Rights Fund, National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, Indian Land Tenure Foundation, American Indians for Opportunity, Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, Concerned Citizens & Retired Miners Coalition, Center For Biological Diversity, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Access Fund, Earthworks, Patagonia, Inc., First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance, Outdoor Alliance, American Civil Liberties Union, Association on American Indian Affairs, HECHO, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Center for American Progress, Teamsters Local Union 104 (Phoenix), Poor People's Campaign

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Local scientists/professionals
Religious groups
San Carlos Apache, Zuni, Yavapai, O’odham and Hopi people
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Development of a network/collective action
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches


Environmental ImpactsPotential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Mine tailing spills, Desertification/Drought
Health ImpactsPotential: Accidents, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Increase in violence and crime, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Land dispossession


Project StatusPlanned (decision to go ahead eg EIA undertaken, etc)
Conflict outcome / response:Under negotiation
Application of existing regulations
Project temporarily suspended
Proposal and development of alternatives:Not mining the area.
The Save Oak Flat Act would revoke the land swap transferring ownership of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Litigation is ongoing as of June 2022

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

[1] USDA Forest Service, Resolution Copper Project and Land Exchange Draft Environmental Impact Statement, 2019

[9] Save Oak Flat Act (US Congress public record)

[12] National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2015, Section 3003, the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[7] Lucas, Emily. The Environmental and Spiritual Significance of Chi’chil Bildagoteel, an Apache Sacred Site. Environmental program thesis, Colorado College, 5/2017

[14] Welch, John R. (2017) Earth, Wind, and Fire: Pinal Apaches, Miners, and Genocide in Central Arizona, 1859-1874. Sage Open.

[2] Resolution Copper Project Overview. Company website

[3] USDA Forest Service. Resolution Copper Update.

[4] Kelety, Josh. "Biden Administration Says Oak Flat Land Swap Should Proceed Despite Lawsuit", Phoenix New Times, 6/2/21

[5] Krol, Debra Utacia. "Biden official tours Oak Flat as Forest Service begins talks with tribes over copper mine", AZCentral, 2/13/22.

[6] Oatman, Maddie. "EVs’ demand for copper escalates threat against Apache’s Oak Flat", High Country News. 4/20/22.

[8] Hedgpeth, Dana. "This land is sacred to the Apache, and they are fighting to save it", The Washington Post, 4/12/21.

[10] History of the Save Oak Flat Act (Apache Stronghold website)

[11] Apache Stronghold website

[13] Whitman, Elizabeth. "New Report Provides Terrifying Detail of Mining Destruction Coming for Oak Flat." Phoenix New Times August 14, 2019

[15] Sacred Land Film Project, November 2018

Stern, Ray. "Environmental Study of Planned Copper Mine at Arizona's Oak Flat Could Halt Project", Phoenix New Times, March 22, 2016.

Vice News 2017: Inside the Fight Against a Mining Development in Oak Flat

Meta information

Contributor:Ksenija Hanacek and EJAtlas collaborators
Last update23/06/2022
Conflict ID:6041



Climbing advocates protest mining operations at Oak Flat, ancestral lands of Akimel O’odham (Upper Pima) and Hohokam. Photo courtesy of © Michael Schennum


4th annual March to Save Oak Flat


Arizona Apache Mobilize Against Copper Mining Company

An Apache activist dancer performs in a rally to save Oak Flat, land near Superior, Ariz., sacred to Western Apache tribes. Source:

Protesting copper mine at Oak Flat Arizona USA

Protesting copper mine at Oak Flat Arizona USA - The mine proposal privatizes 2,400 acres of public land (red boundary) and gives it to Resolution Copper, nullifying President Eisenhower’s executive order that has protected the Oak Flat Campground for more than 50 years (black boundary). Source:

Protestors of Oak Flat mining

More than 75 mining opponents flocked to San Carlos to protest mining they believe could destroy sacred Apache land known as Oak Flat. Source: