Interior Department strikes deal to close mine on sacred mountain

PHOENIX - Federal officials have negotiated a deal to close a pumice mine on a northern Arizona mountain held sacred by 13 American Indian tribes.

Under the agreement to be signed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt next week, the federal government would pay Phoenix-based mine operator Tufflite Inc. $1 million. In return, Tufflite would close the White Vulcan Mine on the San Francisco Peaks within the next six months, relinquish its 49 mining claims in the area and restore the mine site.

''I am pleased that this mine is being shut down,'' Babbitt said in a statement announcing the deal Friday. ''The mine is on land which is sacred to 13 Native American tribes and the operation of this mine has scarred the San Francisco Peaks.''

Babbitt is scheduled to visit the mine and sign the agreement with Tufflite officials on Monday.

Douglas G. Martin, an attorney for Tufflite, said the agreement still had not been finalized Friday afternoon. The government needs to identify a funding source for its payment, he said.

The San Francisco Peaks area has been the focus of arguments since environmentalists and American Indians teamed up to try blocking an expansion of the 90-acre White Vulcan pumice mine.

The tribes gather medicines and conduct sacred ceremonies and prayers on the peaks, actually an extinct volcano. At 12,643 feet, it's also the state's tallest mountain and offers views from its summit that stretch to the Grand Canyon's North Rim, 80 miles away.

''We do feel good about it,'' Navajo Nation spokesman Merle Pete said of the pending agreement. ''We had always hoped the Department of Interior would make this type of decision.''

Phoenix-based Tufflite Inc. has been extracting pumice under the 1872 Mining Law, which allows companies to buy land for as little as $2.50 an acre to mine hardrock minerals such as gold, silver and copper. Companies are not required to pay royalties to the government for the minerals they get.

The Forest Service sued Tufflite, arguing the company should have paid royalties on pumice that was too small to be considered a hardrock mineral. Pumice is used primarily in making concrete and stonewashed jeans. Tufflite's Martin said that suit would be dropped as part of the agreement.

During an April visit, Babbitt called the mine a ''sacrilegious scar'' and said the land should not be desecrated for a material used for cosmetic purposes.

Andy Bessler, organizer of a Sierra Club ''Save the Peaks'' campaign to close the mine, was delighted by the announcement.

''It's great news. We've been fighting this for years,'' Bessler said. ''We see it as the first step in the healing process for the San Francisco Peaks.

''But while we're happy, we can't stop,'' he said. ''As long as the 1872 mining law is on the books this can happen anywhere.''

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