Skip to content
Businessweek
Business

The Biggest Copper Mine in the US Stalled in Dispute Over Sacred Ground

Rio Tinto’s Resolution project has enough of the metal for 275 million EVs. Some locals say it should never be developed.

Oak Flat overlook in Superior, Ariz., where Resolution Copper wants to mine.

Oak Flat overlook in Superior, Ariz., where Resolution Copper wants to mine.

Photographer: Cassidy Araiza for Bloomberg Businessweek

Deep beneath the arroyos and canyons of the Sonoran Desert lies one of the Earth’s biggest deposits of copper—18 million metric tons, enough of the indispensable metal to supply more than half the electric vehicles expected to be produced in the US in the coming decades. But the scrubby, arid land above that reserve is the site of the Apache Nation’s Sunrise Ceremony, a four-day rite in which young women dance and sing to mark their coming of age. “It’s been a part of us since creation,” says Wendsler Nosie Sr., an Apache leader who opposes efforts to extract the copper.

Since 2008, mining giant Rio Tinto Plc has been digging tunnels in the area, tucked into the badlands about 60 miles east of Phoenix, for what it calls the Resolution mine. But despite the Biden administration’s efforts to secure supplies of metals needed for the shift to EVs, the project is stalled. The US Forest Service last year suspended an agreement in which Rio Tinto was to swap land it owns nearby for an area above the mine that’s considered sacred by the Apache.