(Reuters) - The U.S. Forest Service on Monday said it rescinded its January decision to publish an environmental report that cleared the way for an Arizona land swap needed for Rio Tinto Ltd’s Resolution Copper project.
The decision effectively reverses one made by officials in the waning days of former President Donald Trump’s administration and comes less than a week after Tom Vilsack was sworn in as secretary of agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service.
In 2014, then-President Barack Obama signed a Pentagon funding bill that approved Rio Tinto’s proposal to exchange land for another parcel nearby, with the caveat that it could not occur until an environmental report on the mine was published. The Trump administration published that report on Jan. 15, clearing the way for the exchange within 60 days.
While Monday’s action effectively nullifies that publication, it was not immediately clear if the land swap will still go ahead. The U.S. Forest Service did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Were the land swap to be halted, it would mark a serious blow to Rio’s plans to develop the massive copper deposit. The company and partner BHP Group Inc have spent more than $1 billion on the project already, though they have yet to obtain permits or produce any copper, a key metal used to make electric vehicle batteries.
Representatives for Rio Tinto and BHP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Arizona’s San Carlos Apache Tribe and other Native Americans have long objected to the mining project because they consider the land home to religious deities. A U.S. judge has twice in the past month rejected efforts by Native American groups to block the land swap.
Representatives for tribal leaders did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Cynthia Osterman
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