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Hearing begins in Reno on disputed gold mine

by  Sandra
January 20th, 2009

Western Shoshone tribal members packed a Reno courtroom Tuesday, trying to persuade a federal judge to halt at least part of a huge gold mine they claim would desecrate a sacred landmark.

Lawyers for Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp. and the federal government disagreed with their claims that mining on Mount Tenabo in northeast Nevada would prevent the Shoshone from practicing their religion.

The hearing before U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks was to continue Wednesday.

Roger Flynn, an attorney representing members of the Western Shoshone and the environmental group Great Basin Resource Watch, said Barrick's Cortez Hills Project near Crescent Valley some 250 miles east of Reno would cause irreparable harm to the mountain.

Western Shoshone and environmentalists are seeking a preliminary injunction to block construction of the planned 6,700-acre project until a trial can be held on the merits of the tribe's claims.

Among other things, they argue the U.S. Bureau of Land Management used flawed environmental studies when it approved the project, which would include a 900-acre open pit, 2,000 feet deep.

Opponents also claim the approval violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because the say the mine will prevent Western Shoshone from practicing their religion.

Shawn Collins, a member of the Te-Moak band of Western Shoshone and a third generation miner, said his ancestors were born on Mount Tenabo, which he described as the source of the family's "puha," or life force.

A heavy equipment operator for Newmont Mining Corp., Collins said he does not oppose mining, but objects to the work planned on Tenabo.

Collins testified he also was concerned about groundwater levels that environmental studies projected could drop several hundred feet if the mine goes forward.

The water, he said, "is like the veins in our body ... the earth blood."

"If you do pump the water, you're taking the life from the mountain," he said.

Francis Wikstrom, a lawyer for Barrick, said in his opening statement that the mountain has been mined for more than century, and the mine would not prevent Western Shoshone from practicing their beliefs.

Western Shoshone "consider all of the land, all of the air, all of the water sacred," he said, not just Mount Tenabo.

"They can conduct religious services anywhere," he said.

Justice Department lawyer Sara Costello, representing the BLM, agreed with Wikstrom's argument that the Western Shoshone were misinterpreting the religious freedom law. They maintained the act prevents actions that would force members of a religion to do something contradictory to their faith.

In the case of the mine, Western Shoshone would still able to adhere to their religious practices, Wikstrom said.

Wikstrom also argued that stopping the mine would cause economic harm to the company and workers.

Later in the day, Ted Howard, cultural resource director for the Duck Valley Indian Reservation on the Nevada-Oregon line, said creationism stories surrounding Mount Tenabo have been handed down in oral histories from generation to generation.

"I understand that spirits dwell there on that big mountain," he said. "The spirits of our ancestors still reside there."

Under questioning by Wikstrom, Howard agreed there are other religious sites in the area, and while Western Shoshone believe in the sanctity of all life and nature, "there are special places that are more significant than others."

Wikstrom noted that in three books written by experts on Western Shoshone culture, not one mentions Mount Tenabo.

"You can't always rely on books when it comes to significant places," Howard responded.

Outside the federal courthouse, about three dozen Western Shoshone and others demonstrated early in the day. Some beat drums while others held signs reading, "Gold is not worth more than water," and "Gold is not above life and culture."


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