Mining project in hard-hit Ariz. town locked in land dispute with Native American tribe

A proposed copper mine in southern Arizona could bring billions to the hard-hit community of Superior -- where businesses sit empty, homes are boarded up and the economy is in shambles.

But a long-running battle over Native American land rights has the project in a holding pattern. And residents are looking to Congress to have the final say.

Resolution Copper, a mine that already is under development and could be the largest in the country if completed, still needs to execute a high-stakes land swap in order to launch.

The trade? Property the company owns in exchange for 2,500 acres owned by the federal government in Tonto National Forest.

The catch? This is land the San Carlos Apache Tribe considers sacred.

"We have ceremonies there. We have prayers there," tribe member Tao Etpinson said.

The swap needs approval from Congress, and there's no guarantee it will go through as tribal leaders step up their opposition.

"Since this whole thing came up, we felt it necessary that the public know how close we are [to the land] and we're tied to that area," Etpinson said.

Residents in this blue-collar town, though, are desperately looking for jobs.

According to the company's website, the project will produce 3,000 jobs over the life of the mine and billions of dollars for the town's depressed economy.

"We'll be generating a billion dollars of economic stimulus a year," said Andrew Taplin, Resolution Copper's project director. "That's the equivalent of two, three or four Super Bowls every year for 40 years right here in the town of Superior."

Work is already underway. The Resolution Copper mine runs more than mile deep, on its way to about 7,000 feet deep.

But attempts at the land swap have stalled several times over the years. A House committee passed a bill approving it earlier this spring, but the act was pulled from the floor last minute when it came up for a full vote in November.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., opposes the plan.

"What's in it for the taxpayer?" Grijalva asked. "What is the real value of this extraction and is this trade worth it?"

That exact question is hard to answer. While the company says more than 3,000 jobs will be created, only about 1,400 are expected to be direct jobs at the mine.

But the company also is counting "induced" jobs in its projection of 3,000. Those are jobs created from workers spending money in restaurants, shopping malls and on entertainment. A lot of those amenities don't exist in Superior. And those against the mine say that's unlikely to change, worrying many of the new jobs will be filled by workers commuting from nearby Phoenix.

Proponents of the mine and citizens of Superior are hoping Congress will take up the land swap agreement again in early 2014.