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UPDATE 2-U.S. judge will not stop land transfer for Rio Tinto mine in Arizona

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Ernest Scheyder
·2 min read
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(Adds response from Apache Stronghold attorney)

By Ernest Scheyder

Feb 12 (Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday said he wouldnot stop the U.S. Forest Service from transferringgovernment-owned land in Arizona to Rio Tinto Plcfor its Resolution Copper project, denying arequest from Native Americans who said the land has religiousand cultural import.

The judge's decision is likely to escalate the clash betweenmembers of Arizona's San Carlos Apache Tribe, who consider theland home to deities, and Rio and minority partner BHP Group Plc, who have spent more than $1 billion on the projectwithout producing any copper, the red metal used to makeelectric vehicles and other electronics devices.

The ruling means the land transfer can now take place bymid-March under a timeline approved by Congress andthen-President Barack Obama in 2014.

U.S. District Judge Steven Logan, an Obama appointee, saidthe group of Native Americans who brought the suit lackedstanding and that the government has the right to give the landto whomever it chooses.

Tribal members claimed the U.S. government has illegallyoccupied the land for more than 160 years, but Logan sided withgovernment attorneys by finding that Washington gained the landin an 1848 treaty with Mexico.

Representatives for the tribe, Rio Tinto and the U.S. ForestService were not immediately available for comment. BHP declinedto comment.

"We remain undaunted," said Michael Nixon, an attorney forApache Stronghold, the nonprofit group of Native Americansopposed to the mine.

Logan's ruling was related to an injunction request. ApacheStronghold had also asked for a jury trial to determine, inpart, whether the U.S. government can give the land away. It wasnot immediately clear when that trial could take place as U.S.courts have prioritized criminal cases during the coronaviruspandemic.

Some Native Americans work for and support the Resolutionproject, though many others have vowed to oppose it forcefully.

Logan last month declined to block the publication of anenvironmental study that started the 60-day countdown for theland swap.(Reporting by Ernest ScheyderEditing by Chris Reese, David Gregorio and Diane Craft)