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By Ernest Scheyder
SUPERIOR, Ariz. (Reuters) - Early last year, Darrin Lewis paid $800,000 for a hardware store in a tiny Arizona town where mining giant Rio Tinto Plc hopes to build one of the world's largest underground copper mines.
Rio buys materials from Lewis's Superior Hardware & Lumber for its Resolution mine site, accounting for a third of the store's sales and helping to keep it afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.
But U.S. President Joe Biden put the mining project on hold last month in response to the concerns of Native Americans who say it will destroy sacred land and of environmentalists who worry it will gobble up water in a drought-stricken state.
That's fueled anxiety among Lewis and others here in Superior, Arizona, who want to reap the economic benefits of a mine that would harvest more than 40 billion pounds of copper.
"I sunk everything I have into this place," said Lewis, surrounded by hammer drills, wrenches and other goods in his store. "It would absolutely devastate us if this mine doesn't open."
In halting the project, Biden reversed a decision by predecessor Donald Trump that would have given Rio land for the mine. Biden ordered more government analysis of the project.
The ongoing fight pits conservationists and Native Americans against local officials and residents who support its economic benefits. The complex debate is a harbinger of battles to come as the U.S. aims to build more electric vehicles, which use twice as much copper as those with internal combustion engines. The Resolution mine could fill about 25% of the demand for U.S. cooper.
The Arizona dispute centers on Oak Flat Campground, which some Apache consider home to deities known as Ga'an. Religious ceremonies are held at the site, near the San Carlos Apache Reservation, to celebrate teenage girls coming of age. Many Apache have ancestors buried under the volcanic rock.
In 2014, the Obama administration and Congress set in motion a complex process intended to give Rio 3,000 acres of federally-owned land, including the campground, in exchange for 4,500 acres that Rio owns nearby. Biden has paused that transfer.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
"If Rio gets this place, then the mine will kill the angels and the deities that live here," said Wendsler Nosie, a San Carlos Apache tribe member who has led a protest camp for 18 months at the site. A sign there describes the land, known as Chi'chil Bildagoteel in the Western Apache language, as the physical embodiment of the earth's spirit.
Nosie has marshaled widespread support for his cause, helped by rising global attention to the rights of indigenous peoples. Rio itself fueled that cause last year when it blew up culturally significant Aboriginal rock shelters in Australia.
If the land swap is approved, Rio has said it would keep the campground open for the next few decades before the underground mine causes a crater that would swallow the site. The company has also said it would seek tribal consent for the project and study ways to avoid causing the crater.
"The land exchange gives us the opportunity to collect more data, then we can refine our plans and look for ways that we can do further avoidance and minimization" of site damage, said Vicky Peacey, a senior permitting manager for the Rio project.
Rio, which is based in Australia and the United Kingdom, has also promised to preserve other cultural sites including Apache Leap, a rock cliff that overlooks Superior and where Apaches jumped to their deaths to avoid capture by U.S. troops in the late 19th century.
Politicians in Superior - a town of 3,000 residents that voted nearly two-to-one for Democrat Biden last November in a majority-Republican county - are now prodding the president to change his mind.
The land swap, if Biden approves, would also let the town of Superior buy more than 600 acres that officials say is crucial to diversifying the local economy by expanding the airport, developing an industrial park and building affordable housing.
"President Biden is going to have to make some courageous decisions," said Mayor Mila Besich, a Democrat.
Mining is essential to accomplishing Biden's goal of expanding EV production, she said. "We're going to need more American copper," she said.
While the region has long been popular with hikers and campers, it is better known as the "Copper Corridor," with mines from Freeport-McMoRan Inc and others.
The closure of the Magma copper mine in 1996 devastated Superior's economy. Officials have pinned their hopes now on Resolution. Since the copper deposit was first discoved in 1995, Rio and minority partner BHP Group Plc have spent more than $2 billion to dig an exploratory mine shaft and dismantle an old Magma smelter. They have yet to produce any copper. BHP declined to comment.
More than half of the buildings in Superior's downtown sit empty. Several Tesla Inc charging stations hint at the town's aspirations to be part of the EV boom. Nikola Corp and Lucid Motors are building their own EV plants less than 50 miles (80 km) away.
Rio has promised to hire 1,400 full-time workers at an average annual salary of more than $100,000. That's nearly half the population in a town whose median income is a third below the national average.
"What's sacred to my community is that people have a job and have a home," said Besich, the mayor.
The mine would boost state, local and federal tax coffers by $280 million annually and add $1 billion to the state's economy, Arizona's governor said.
Besich pushed back when studies showed Rio would only pay the town $350,000 a year in taxes, far below the $1 million would need annually for increased police, firefighting and road maintenance.
Rio agreed to pay the town more, to guarantee Superior's water supply and to donate $1.2 million to the school district. Superintendent Steve Estatico said without Rio's support the district's schools – where enrollment has dropped 13 percent since 2016 – may close.
"Rio's had to learn over the last few years that it cannot take host communities for granted," Besich said.
The San Carlos Apache - one of the first Native American tribes to endorse Biden's presidential bid - have not negotiated with Rio because its tribal council favors direct talks with the U.S. government, said Chairman Terry Rambler.
Rio's copper chief, Bold Baatar, said he hopes to negotiate directly with the tribe when he visits Arizona as early as June, once pandemic restrictions allow.
"We are hearing the concerns from everyone," Baatar told Reuters. "There will not be a mine until we achieve maximum effort to seek consent."
Not all local Native Americans oppose the mine. Some members of the White Mountain Apache tribe, whose reservation is just north of the San Carlos Apache's, say they do not consider the campground a sacred site.
"The belief that the site is religious, that's news to me," said Alvena Bush, a White Mountain Apache councilwoman who supports the project.
Rio has dug a mine shaft nearly 7,000 feet (2 km) underground on land it owns near the campground. The bottom of the shaft has become a staging ground for future mining operations.
The miner is draining water from the nearby copper deposit to make it easier to extract. More than 600 gallons of water are pumped each minute to treatment plants on the surface for use in local farming.
Rio plans to mine the copper using a technique known as block caving. It involves carving a cave out of a large section of rock, which then collapses under the weight of the rock above, creating a crater 2 miles (3 km) wide and 1,000 (304 m) feet deep.
This method would damage aquifers that feed two local springs, according to an environmental study from the U.S. Forest Service. The entire mine would reduce available groundwater in the area, which has been in a drought since the late 1990s, the report said.
"This land is going to be worthless if there's no water to go with it," said Henry Munoz, who leads a group of retired Superior miners opposed to the project.
Biden is expected to decide later this spring on whether to give Rio the land for the mine. Lewis, the hardware store owner, hopes his plight will be considered among all the competing interests.
"If I had one thing to say to President Biden, it would be: 'Let the mine open,'" he said.
(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; additional reporting by Caitlin O'Hara, Sandra Stojanovic and Trevor Hunnicutt; editing by Amran Abocar and Brian Thevenot)