by Erin Kelly – Oct. 26, 2011 12:00 AM
Republic Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – The House is expected to vote today to clear the way for development of North America’s largest copper mine, near Superior.

It will be the first time the House has taken action on the project, which various members of the Arizona congressional delegation have been pushing for six years.

The latest bill, by freshman Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., would authorize a land swap between the federal government and Resolution Copper Co., the developer of the proposed mine.

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Resolution Copper would get about 2,400 acres in the Oak Flat area of the Tonto National Forest in return for giving more than 5,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land throughout Arizona to the federal government.

Arizona’s four other Republican House members are all expected to vote in favor of the land swap. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., is expected to vote against it. It is not clear how Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., who introduced an earlier version of the bill, will vote. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., wounded by a gunman in January, is undergoing rehabilitation and has cast only one vote since the shooting.

The bill has not yet been introduced in the Senate.

The House voted 245-178 Tuesday to approve a rule that will govern debate on Gosar’s bill and allow votes on four amendments today. The first amendment, by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., would simply make some technical corrections to the bill. Hastings is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which approved the bill in July.

The other three, by Democrats, are likely to fail.

One of those, by Grijalva, would require that the remote operations center for the proposed mine be located in the local community, that the company actively recruit and hire local employees, that all ore produced from the mine be processed in the United States and that all equipment used at the mine be made in the United States.

Gosar, speaking on the House floor, touted the jobs that the copper mine could bring to Arizona. Developers say the project would create about 3,000 jobs to build the mine over the next decade.

Once the mine is open, which is projected to happen in 2021, it would employ about 1,400 people. Resolution Copper said most of those workers will be Arizonans. The mine will also create about 2,300 non-direct jobs, including contractors who supply fuel, tires, cement and steel, company officials said.

New businesses, such as restaurants, also would be expected to open to serve the workers, according to a report commissioned by the company.

“The total economic impact of the project on the state of Arizona is estimated to be over $61.4 billion, nearly $1 billion per year, and another $19 billion in federal, state, county and local tax revenue,” Gosar said. “In these tough fiscal times, I think we can all agree that the (federal government) can use this.”

Opponents of the project, including Grijalva, say the project would harm Apache tribal lands and threaten the region’s already scarce water supply.

Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., warned that there is nothing to prevent Resolution Copper’s parent company, Australia-based Rio Tinto, from bringing in foreign workers to run the mine or using robotic technology that can be operated from outside the United States.

“When a lot of these foreign companies come in, they bring their workers with them,” Hastings said. “How does that create jobs?”

But Gosar and Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said thousands of Arizonans would gain jobs from the mine itself or from the revitalized economy it creates in the region.

“Walk the streets of Superior right now, look at the boarded-up buildings and try to tell somebody who finally has a paycheck that their job isn’t real because a foreign company has some investment here,” Flake said.

While the Republican-led House is expected to approve the bill today, its fate in the Democratic-led Senate is uncertain.

Supporters hope the bill may become part of a much larger lands bill that includes projects that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wants for his home state. Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl support the land swap. They have been waiting for the House to pass the bill before introducing it in the Senate.