RENO -- The government says Washoe County went beyond its legal bounds earlier this year when it rejected a permit for a clay mine and cat litter plant north of Reno.
In an opinion requested by the Bureau of Land Management, federal lawyers argue that the Mining Law of 1872 bars local governments from restricting mining activity on federal land.
The brief filed Nov. 27 in U.S. District Court in Reno is designed to reaffirm the government's position it has pre-eminent authority in regulating mining on public land, Nevada BLM director Bob Abbey said.
Chicago-based Oil-Dri of America, the world's largest producer of cat litter, sought to dig clay from two open pit mines on BLM land near Hungry Valley and to manufacture cat litter and other absorbent materials in a plant located on adjoining private land.
A special-use permit for the project was opposed by nearby residents and the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and was rejected Feb. 26 by the Washoe County Commission. Oil-Dri sued the county in April, seeking unspecified damages.
Although commissioners may have had authority to deny the processing plant on private land, the brief argues that the county "issued a de facto ban on mining on the federal land" without legal authority to do so.
Bob Vetere, vice president and general counsel for Oil-Dri, said the brief strengthens his company's position in its lawsuit against the county.
"It's one I could have written myself," Vetere said. "I hope that the court takes their guidance to heart. We certainly think they're right on."
But Assistant District Attorney Madelyn Shipman said she's confident the county remains on strong ground in its legal battle with the mining company.
She said Oil-Dri pursued its plans for both private and public land under a single permit application and that commissioners acted within their authority to deny the permit because of environmental and land-use concerns.
Tom Myers of Great Basin Mine Watch agreed the county acted appropriately and insists the law allows local government to restrict mining activity on federal land because of environmental concerns. Great Basin Mine Watch and the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony have intervened in the lawsuit.
Myers told the Reno Gazette-Journal the Justice Department's brief improperly diminishes the authority of local governments.
"They're just basically saying it doesn't matter what local government wants -- that the big, bad federal government can do whatever it wants," Myers said.