A federal judge said on Friday that he would not prevent the US Forest Service from transferring government-owned land in Arizona to Rio Tinto Plc for his Resolution Copper project, refusing a request from Native Americans who declared the land to be of religious and cultural importance.
The judge’s ruling is likely to intensify the clash between members of Arizona’s San Carlos Apache tribe, who believe the land is home to deities, and Rio and its minority partner BHP Group Plc, who have spent more than ‘$ 1 billion on the project without producing copper, the red metal used to make electric vehicles and other electronic devices.
The move means the land transfer can now take place by mid-March on a schedule approved by Congress and then-President Barack Obama in 2014.
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Obama-appointed U.S. District Judge Steven Logan said the group of Native Americans who brought the lawsuit did not have standing and the government has the right to give the land to whomever it wants.
Members of the tribe claimed that the US government had illegally occupied the land for over 160 years, but Logan sided with government lawyers when he found out that Washington had obtained the land in an 1848 treaty with Mexico.
Representatives of the tribe, Rio Tinto and the US Forest Service were not immediately available for comment. BHP declined to comment.
“We remain fearless,” said Michael Nixon, lawyer for Apache Stronghold, the nonprofit group of Native Americans opposed to the mine.
Logan’s decision was related to an injunction request. Apache Stronghold had also requested a jury trial to determine, in part, whether the US government can cede the ground. It was not immediately clear when this trial could take place as U.S. courts have prioritized criminal cases during the coronavirus pandemic.
Some Native Americans are working and supporting Project Resolution, although many others have vowed to strongly oppose it.
Logan refused last month to block the release of an environmental study that kicked off the 60-day countdown to the land swap.