U.S. judge denies Native American bid to block land swap for Rio Tinto copper mine

FILE PHOTO: A view of the future block cave mine planned by mining company Rio Tinto in the Tonto National Forest near Superior, Arizona May 30, 2015. REUTERS/Deanna Dent/File Photo/File Photo

(Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Thursday denied a request by Native Americans to block the Trump administration from publishing an environmental study that would trigger a land swap needed by Rio Tinto Ltd to build a copper mine in Arizona.

The ruling is a blow to the San Carlos Apache tribe and others who have long opposed Rio’s Resolution copper project, which would be built on land considered sacred.

U.S. District Judge Steven Logan declined to issue a restraining order that would have prevented the government from publishing the environmental study as planned on Friday, a step that would start a 60-day countdown to transfer the land to Rio Tinto.

Tribal attorneys are required, under legal statute, to discuss the restraining order request with the government, but government attorneys did not return the tribe’s phone calls, the filing documents show. Because the two sides did not talk, Logan said he would not approve the restraining order.

The judge added that even if the study is published, it does not necessarily mean the land swap will go through, although the U.S. Congress had mandated just that in 2014. The judge has set a series of hearings on the matter over the next two weeks.

Lawyers for tribal members say they are looking forward to the hearings and hope the judge will invalidate the environmental study, if it is published, or rule the 2014 act by Congress unconstitutional.

As an added defense, tribal members on Thursday filed a property lien on the land, effectively saying the government does not own the land and thus cannot give it away.

The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the land, was not immediately available to comment. Rio declined to comment.

Reporting by Ernest Scheyder and Melanie Burton; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Karishma Singh