FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — A federal judge has denied a request from a group of Apaches who sought to keep the U.S. Forest Service from issuing an environmental review of a copper mining project until the court takes up a larger case over who legally owns land known as Oak Flat.
The judge on Thursday night denied Apache Stronghold's motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, pending a Jan. 27 hearing.
Apache Stronghold wants to keep land it considers sacred in eastern Arizona from being turned over to international mining giant Rio Tinto and its subsidiary Resolution Copper.
"We hang on to faith all the time. But how many times has the right thing been done?" said Wendsler Nosie Sr., a former San Carlos Apache chairman who leads the Apache Stronghold group.
Tonto National Forest plans to publish a final environmental impact statement Friday for the project east of Phoenix that would be one of the largest copper mines in the U.S. Once the review is out, the Forest Service has 60 days to transfer 2,422 acres (980 hectares) to the copper company. In exchange, the Forest Service will get several parcels around Arizona.
The Forest Service hasn't responded to requests for comment on the lawsuit or the request for a temporary restraining order.
The land swap was made possible by a last-minute provision that the late Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain added to a must-pass defense bill in December 2014. The required environmental review has two purposes: to look at the company's plan of operations and enable the land swap.
Supporters of the project have hailed the jobs and the economic prospects of resuming mining at the site, which wouldn't happen immediately. Resolution Copper said it still has five years of study, followed by 10 years of construction before any mining would occur.
Apache Stronghold sued the Forest Service earlier this week. The lawsuit says the agency doesn't have the legal right to transfer the land at Oak Flat to the mining company because it belongs to Apaches under an 1852 treaty.
Separately, the group filed notice Thursday in Pinal County that ownership of the Forest Service parcel is in dispute and the subject of a court case.