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Mining project puts sacred Native land at risk

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Nearly 7000 feet below the earth's surface, miners work to build the foundation of what mining giant Rio Tinto hopes to be one of the world's largest underground copper mines.

Rio buys materials for its Resolution Mine site from Darrin Lewis's Superior Hardware & Lumber located in the tiny town of Superior, Arizona.

Lewis paid $800,000 for the hardware store early last year and now Rio's purchases account for a third of the store's sales.

"We put everything we had into the store - everything - and so we want it to succeed, we want the town to grow, we want the town to succeed."

But the mining project was put on hold last month by U.S. President Joe Biden in response to the concerns of Native Americans, such as Elder Sandra Rambler of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, who say it will destroy sacred land.

"It is our religion, and no one, no one can take that away from us, nobody - I don't care who you are - I am bound by our traditional culture and spiritual law to believe there. If I want to go there and be able to pray there, I should have that right. And I don't, no foreign company to come and tell me no you can't do that."

The dispute centers on Oak Flat Campground, which some Apache consider home to deities -- and where religious ceremonies are held.

The ongoing fight pits environmentalists and Native Americans against local officials and residents who support the project's economic benefits and it's 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.

Biden ordered more government analysis of the project, which was set in motion in 2014... when the Obama administration and Congress started a complex process intended to give Rio 3,000 acres of federally-owned land in exchange for 4,500 acres that Rio owns nearby.

In halting the project, Biden reversed a decision by predecessor Donald Trump that would have given Rio land for the mine.

Later this Spring, Biden is expected to decide whether Rio gets the land.

For Lewis, the hardware store owner, he hopes his plight will be considered among all the competing interests.

Lewis: "If I had one thing to say to President Biden, it would be 'Let the mine open.'"

While Rambler hopes the administration will take into account their mission to protect and preserve the Oak Flat campground.

Rambler: "We have the freedom of religion, and this is our religion, this is who we are, this is us as Apaches."