Tribe battles BLM over Nev. gold mine in US court

By Scott Sonner
Reno, Nevada (AP) October 2011

Lawyers for environmentalists and several Nevada tribes urged a federal judge to keep in place restrictions from a 2009 court order that blocks the expansion of a gold mine at the base of a mountain that some Western Shoshone consider sacred.

Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp.’s proposed expansion would make the mine at Mount Tenabo, about 250 miles east of Reno, one of the biggest open pits in North America.

Lawyers for Barrick Gold, as well as Justice Department attorneys representing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, asked Judge Larry Hicks to lift a partial injunction and clear the way for the digging of the 2,000-foot pit.

The BLM has corrected deficiencies in its formal analysis of potential environmental impacts, the attorneys told Hicks.

But opponents said the BLM’s supplemental environmental impact statement is no better than previous assessments that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals twice has found insufficient.

“This is obviously a very sensitive case,” Hicks said during the hearing. “The court is aware of the sensitivity.”

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.

About a dozen tribe members and supporters – some with signs that read “Water is more precious than gold” – gathered in front of the federal courthouse before the hearing in Reno for a “water honoring ceremony” and prayer.

“We have great concerns when large corporations and the federal government can trample our natural resources,” said Bryan Cassadore, chairman of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone.

“The spring water and natural resources of rural Nevada has always been important to the Western Shoshone Indians for thousands of years and continues to be,” he said.

Justice Department lawyers said BLM’s new analysis complies with all state and federal environmental laws.

“BLM very thoroughly analyzed the project’s potential effects on Native American beliefs and cultural practices,” wrote Ty Bair, a lawyer in the department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

But lawyers for the tribes and the Reno-based Great Basin Resource Watch said the mining plans offer no specific protections for the environment, only a detailed schedule of monitoring intended to detect any potential pollution on groundwater supplies.

The BLM’s plan to “monitor the drawdown and elimination of surface waters and springs/seeps, and then figure out a way to avoid these losses is the type of `impact first, develop a plan later’ approach rejected by the Ninth Circuit,” said Roger Flynn, a Denver-based lawyer who represents a number of Nevada tribes.

The appellate judges concluded BLM’s review was inadequate under the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a thorough examination of large-scale projects on federal land. They said the agency didn’t fully consider the impact of air quality resulting from transporting ore to an off-site processing facility 70 miles away.

The judges also said the review didn’t do enough to examine the likelihood that pumping water out of the pit would cause the groundwater level to drop and potentially dry up more than a dozen streams and springs.

Flynn said BLM has assessed the potential impacts on livestock, wildlife and irrigation but still has ignored the potential harm to the groundwater levels and tribal members’ use of the water in prayer and other spiritual expressions.

“BLM is supposed to balance the interests. In this case, there is no protection of the groundwater and the Shoshone’s uses of it,” he said. “What they approved was exactly what Barrick wanted. There wasn’t any negotiation, any compromise.”

Francis Wikstrom, a lawyer for Barrick based in Salt Lake City, accused the opponents of trying to stall the project to death.

“They are moving the goal posts at every juncture to make BLM go back to the drawing board and reanalyze and reanalyze and reanalyze,” he said. “It’s clear they are setting these arguments up for another trip to the 9th Circuit.”