Several hundred mine employees could lose their jobs if an environmental and Native American coalition succeeds in delaying or stopping a mine expansion project in north central Nevada, mining officials say.
Coalition members say delaying the expansion won't cause unemployment. And they charge the project will contaminate ground water, pollute the air and further disturb lands sacred to the Western Shoshone people.
The charges were raised in a brief appealing the Bureau of Land Management's approval of the south pipeline mine expansion at the Cortez Gold Mines. The mining complex is located in Lander County's Crescent Valley.
Great Basin Mine Watch, the Mineral Policy Center and the Western Shoshone Defense Project filed the brief last week with the Interior Board of Land Appeals, asking that work be stayed on the expansion while the Board considers the appeal issues. Cortez is a joint venture between mining titans Placer Dome U.S. Inc. and Kennecott Corp.
The BLM and the company have 30 days to respond. The Board then has 45 days to decide the appeal. At that point, the losing party could take the case to federal court, possibly adding years to the dispute.
BLM officials refused to comment, citing the pending appeal. Company officials say the BLM already considered and responded to the appeal issues during the public comment period before the project's approval. They warn of negative economic consequences if the Board grants a stay of the mine expansion.
"One-third of the work force has turned itself to developing the south pipeline project. If this stay is granted, we will have to lay them off by year's end," said Tony Jensen, Cortez general manager. "If the appeal is prolonged to two years, the whole work force could be in jeopardy." Cortez employs 384 people.
Great Basin Mine Watch's Tom Myers, Ph.D., countered that any delay could be absorbed into the project's 12-year operating plan. "A stay of the expansion will not cause Cortez to lay off any workers," he said, and suggested that company warnings about pink slips could be a way of diverting attention from environmental and cultural concerns.
Chief among those concerns is the possible use of too much public land for the disposal of waste rock, which is what's created after ore is brought to the surface, crushed and relieved of its valuable minerals.
"This project will disturb over 4,400 acres of, and deposit over 450 million tons of waste rock containing tons of toxic chemicals on public land," Myers said. "By the end of this project, there will be more than half a billion pounds of arsenic" and other toxic heavy metals on the surface. The Cortez mines released about 36 million pounds of pollutants in 1999, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report.
Myers said land water seeps through the waste rock on its way underground, leaching heavy metals and ultimately contaminating water tables. He said an expanded mine would also release heavy metals into the air at unsafe levels. He noted that potential toxicity to people, flora and fauna would not be immediate but would occur over decades.
Cortez officials believe Myers miscalculated what constitutes an acceptable level of airborne hazardous material. "We are in compliance with all air quality and emissions standards," Jensen said. He added that federal figures on released pollutants are misleading because they include minerals that have merely been brough to the surface.
"I don't see a danger in this at all," Jensen said. "It simply means that we're moving naturally occurring substances without changing the nature of them at all."
Cortez officials also believe fears about ground water pollution are unfounded because the company effectively reclaims waste rock.
"We're quite selective in how we leave the waste dump," Jensen explained. "We recontour it and design a protective cover over the top. We have the right capping and vegetative cover to make sure we don't have leaching. A very well-planned reclamation plan will not cause any environmental harm."
Jensen also criticized environmentalist concerns that because of the mine expansion, "the delicate water balance will be destroyed over the entire valley." He said 97 percent of the liquid drawn from the water table during mining is reinjected into the ground, with only two percent used to extract minerals and one percent lost to evaporation.
Chris Sewall of the Western Shoshone Defense Project disagreed. "Clearly they can do more to protect the water resources, air quality and people of Crescent Valley." The valley lies within the ancestral lands of the Western Shoshone. Project representatives were unavailable for further comment.
Bernice Lalo, a Western Shoshone tribal member but not a tribal spokesperson, said one thing Cortez could do would be to share some of the mine's wealth with her people. "They are mining billions of dollars from Shoshone land, and we receive no economic development from that."
Jensen responded that because the Cortez mines lie on federal lands, the Shoshone should take up the issue of payments with the federal government, not with the company.
Although the Shoshone would like a stake in current mining operations, Lalo said they want the mine expansion itself "canceled altogether. If that's not possible, then we would like to see the mining company act responsibly. We need to talk about the future effects mining will have on our original lands."
Lalo said, "It's a genocidal act when a mine destroys a mountain. It destroys our ties to the land, to those places that are named in our stories."
She said land set aside for the mine expansion could contain tribal burial sites, a suggestion Jensen dismissed as "emphatically false."
"We have been very sensitive to Native American concerns," he said "We'd love to improve our relationship with the Shoshone. But there are some splinter groups that have a bigger agenda, and perhaps at no time would it make sense for them to support a bigger development on what they claim is their native ground."
Lalo said she has trouble believing the company's assurances of goodwill. She said government officials are unwilling to act against Cortez' interests because of the taxes and land use fees the company pays. "They're afraid the money is going to disappear. The BLM has a monetary incentive to approve mining permits."
That's "just false," Jensen replied again. "There's no basis to say that there's a preferential relationship between business and industry."
He said Cortez is proud of its record as a corporate citizen. "We shouldn't be ashamed of our ability to bring employment and tax revenue to rural Nevada."
He said Cortez and its corporate parents paid more than $17 million in state taxes in 1999 and almost $1.7 million in Lander County taxes. State and Lander County tax officials could not confirm these figures because of confidentiality laws.
Given what he feels is the company's responsible economic contribution to Nevada, Jensen said it's "frustrating to have cavalier accusations at the end of the (expansion approval) process."
Still, both Jensen and Myers hope that environmentalists, the company and the Shoshone can work together on the mine expansion issue.
"I would like to work outside of the confines of conflict. There's a much better way to manage differences," Jensen said.
Concurring, Myers said, "We would rather work things out. We're looking for the company to spend some of its money on improvements protecting air and water quality and on a good neighbor policy with the Shoshone people."