RENO, Nevada, January 26, 2009 (ENS) - A federal judge has decided not to grant an injunction sought by the Western Shoshone Tribe and four other plaintiffs to stop construction one of the largest open pit gold mines in the United States - the Cortez Hills Expansion Project on Mt. Tenabo.
Barrick Gold based in Canada, the world's largest gold mining company, has been granted a permit to construct and operate the mine in an area that the tribes' lawsuit states is "located entirely within the territory of the Western Shoshone Nation."
Judge Larry Hicks of the federal district court in Reno today ruled that because tribal members would continue to have access to areas they claim for religious and spiritual purposes, including the top of Mt. Tenabo, the White Cliffs, and Horse Canyon, the gold mine could go ahead and the mining permit would not be revoked.
A key question in this case was whether the permit granted by the Bureau of Land Management imposed a "substantial burden" on the tribe's religious conduct under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Judge Hicks concluded that while tribal members' spiritual experience may be diminished by the project, that does not amount to a substantial burden.
Mt. Tenabo rises above Crescent Valley in Nevada. (Photo courtesy Great Basin Resource Watch)
"That means basically they can go ahead and start up," said Chris Worthington, planning and environmental coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management's Battle Mountain Mt. Lewis Field Office.
"This is very good news for rural Nevada and for everyone who has supported us in this dispute," said Greg Lang, president of Barrick Gold of North America. "We respect anyone's right to oppose our activities but, in this case, the judge's ruling makes it clear that we can continue with the project's construction."
The permit was granted on November 12, 2008 and the $500 million mine construction project could begin as early as this week.
The plaintiff groups are - the South Fork Band Council of Western Shoshone of Nevada, the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, the Western Shoshone Defense Project, Great Basin Mine Watch and the nonprofit Western Mining Action Project, which provides free legal services for citizen groups and Native American tribes on hardrock mining issues in the Western U.S. and Alaska.
At more than 9,000 feet in elevation, Mount Tenabo towers over Crescent Valley. The plaintiff groups claim that the mine will destroy Mt. Tenabo, a precious cultural site of the Western Shoshone.
Kathleen Holly says, "I visit Mt. Tenabo to pray to the Creator and to the life force of the world that resides in the mountain. The proposed Cortez Hills mine pit, along with its waste dumps and other mining facilities would be located right where I go to pray."
"BLM is wrong to limit the importance of Mt. Tenabo to Western Shoshone people to just the top of the mountain," she said.
The Shoshone maintain that Mt. Tenabo and its environs are part of the ancestral land of the Western Shoshone, which has never been legally ceded to the federal government. Nevertheless, U.S. politicians and multinational corporations ignore the 1863 treaty between the U.S. government and the Western Shoshone, treating sacred land as a public resource to be mined for gold, the tribe says.
The plaintiffs claimed that the mining permit violated the National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA, but the judge disagreed.
"On the NEPA claims," said Worthington, "the court described the Environmental Impact Study as very thorough and obviously the product of thousands of hours of analysis and expertise by either the BLM or the contractor. He further concluded that BLM gave all of the relevant issues raised by this type of project the requisite 'hard look.'"
The plaintiffs had also claimed that the mining permit violated the Federal Land Policy Management Act, but the court "reviewed the requirement that BLM take any action necessary to prevent unnecessary or undue degradation to the public lands and determined that based on what had been presented in the government's brief and arguments, the agency had satisfied the standards," Worthington said.
The Cortez property is expected to begin producing in the first half of 2010, with average annual production increasing to about 1.0 million ounces of gold for each of the first full five years of production.
There is a division of opinion within the Shoshone tribal group over the gold mine.
Barrick recently signed a Collaborative Agreement with leaders of several Western Shoshone communities in Nevada to work together in partnership to improve education, business and employment opportunities for the Western Shoshone, enhance awareness of Native culture and to build greater mutual understanding.
The agreement establishes a Western Shoshone Educational Legacy Fund tied directly to revenues from the Cortez Hills mine. The fund is expected to provide financial support for generations of Western Shoshone seeking higher education.
"As we watch the continuing economic turmoil in urban Nevada and elsewhere, we are fortunate to be able to provide hundreds of good jobs and the many other benefits this project brings to rural Nevada," Lang said. "In particular, we look forward to continuing to work with the Western Shoshone communities to ensure that the project is beneficial to their interests."
The Cortez Hills Project includes both surface and underground mining operations in an area where dozens of smaller mines have produced a variety of metals since the 1870s. This new expansion is expected to increase gold production at Cortez to an average of one million ounces annually in the first five years.
The Crescent Valley area is currently impacted by more than three dozen large gold mines, and the valley is now an epicenter for gold exploration in the United States.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.
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