RENO — Lawyers for an environmental group and Native American tribes trying to block another expansion at one of the biggest gold mines in North America say the U.S. government — in concert with the largest gold company in the world — is making an unprecedented attempt to skirt two of the nation’s fundamental laws protecting federal lands.
In a case that’s been bouncing back and forth between federal court in Reno and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for nearly three years, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp. have countered that the Great Basin Resource Watch and the Western Shoshone are exaggerating the harm the mining operation will cause to the groundwater beneath Nevada’s Mount Tenabo, and to the cultural and religious beliefs of native people who regard the water as sacred.
The Obama administration is arguing, for the first time, that it has no responsibility under the National Environmental Policy Act or Federal Land Management and Policy Act to analyze those cultural and religious effects because they can’t be quantified. And — in the case of Barrick’s Cortez Hills project — the government is arguing any damages from those effects are impossible to mitigate.
“BLM very thoroughly analyzed the project’s potential effects on Native American beliefs and cultural practices,” said Ty Bair, a lawyer in the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. But, since the Western Shoshone didn’t keep records about their use of the water, he said, “it was impossible to analyze the impact to the users.”
Roger Flynn, the lead lawyer representing the two Western Shoshone tribes and the environmental watchdog group based in Reno, rebutted that logic.
“If you don’t have to mitigate for degradation anytime you can’t quantify something, then BLM would be off the hook forever on Western lands for protection of any cultural or religious values,” Flynn said . “That’s a very dangerous precedent for federal lands in the West.”
U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks is expected to rule as early as next month on the supplemental environmental impact statement BLM completed in March for the Cortez Hills project after the 9th Circuit Court twice found the previous work insufficient and ordered a third try.
The appellate court in San Francisco ruled most recently in 2010 that the BLM had failed to adequately analyze the potential for the project to pollute the air and dry up scarce water resources in northeast Nevada’s high desert.
Because mining operations run into the water table about 500 feet beneath the surface, water must be pumped out of the open pit in order to maximize production as deep as 2,100 feet — a projected total of 16.5 billion gallons of water over the life of the mine. Most of that water is being piped about 15 miles away into the arid Crescent Valley for agricultural use.
Justice Department lawyers representing BLM told Hicks during oral arguments on Oct. 6 that the agency’s new analysis complies with all state and federal laws. Barrick has been operating under the directions of the supplemental EIS since March and now is mining as deep as 1,500 feet.
Tribal leaders say Mount Tenabo is home to several Western Shoshone creation stories, and the water running beneath it is a sacrament important to maintaining the balance and power of life.
“This area is where the seasons of the year were named — in the time before people were here,” said Carrie Dann, who founded the Western Shoshone Defense Project in 1991. “This entire area is very important to us as Western Shoshone people.”