A federal judge intends to rule Monday on a complicated legal battle that pits religious and environmental concerns against the economic interests of hundreds of Nevada miners and the world's biggest gold mining company.
Conservationists and Western Shoshone tribal members are seeking a preliminary injunction to halt part of a huge gold mine project they claim would desecrate a sacred landmark where many have worshiped for centuries on Mount Tenabo in northeast Nevada.
"This case is about one very big, very destructive mine and about one special, unique and very important place—so important that people come hundreds of miles to pray there to their creator," said Roger Flynn, a lawyer for the tribe and the Great Basin Resource Watch.
"You can't pray in a blast zone," he said Friday at the close of the fourth day of a hearing.
Lawyers for the Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp. and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management counter that the 6,700-acre Cortez Hills project 250 miles east of Reno in Crescent Valley has been properly approved under the Mining Law of 1872.
They say any delay in digging the 2,000-foot deep open pit would cause an undue financial hardship on the company and its workers during tough economic times.
"Barrick is prepared to spend $640,000 a day for the next 15 months and a lot of that money will remain right here in the state," said Francis Wikstrom, a lawyer for Barrick.
Thirty workers already have been laid off and another 250 to 300 will be out of work and unlikely to find other jobs if the project is halted, he said.
"This is basically the only game in town in northern Nevada," Wikstrom said about a state that produces more gold than any other—trailing only South Africa, Australia and China internationally. "People need to feed their families."
U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks said he will announce his ruling at 3 p.m. Monday.
"All of us know it is a very difficult issue for many people," Hicks said Friday.
Among other things, opponents argue the BLM used flawed environmental studies when it approved the project, including failing to adequately assess the extent to which removal of water from the open pit will cause seeps and streams to dry up and the groundwater table to drop—a phenomenon known as "dewatering."
They also claim the approval violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because the mine will prevent Western Shoshone from practicing their religion.
"This is about two of America's greatest ideals—that every American's religious views should be respected under the law and the right to challenge and stop illegal government actions," Flynn said. "It's also about billions of dollars of profit for a foreign company."
Flynn said the economic benefit doesn't outweigh BLM's requirement to follow the law. He said more than 1 billion tons of mining waste is expected at the site and the pit eventually will fill with "arsenic-laiden water."
"These are extremely troubling economic times, but it is in troubling times that we must hold on to certain core beliefs in this country," he said.
"If you've ever seen one of these open pit mines it just takes the earth and turns it inside out over 7,000 acres and then suck out all the water. If that is not irreparable harm, what is?" Flynn said. "Dewatering will kill the mountain. It will drain its blood, remove its spirit and remove its power."
Sarah Costello, a Justice Department lawyer representing the BLM, said the government's "compelling interest" in the project going forward is "grounded in the Mining Law of 1872."
"Congress placed a value on the public being given the ability to mine mineral resources," Costello said.
"This is a project BLM spent significant time and resources assessing" before concluding it would not cause any unnecessary or undue degradation to public land, as required by law, added Donna Fitzgerald, another Justice Department lawyer.
Wikstrom told the judge the plaintiffs are "asking you to go where no court has gone before."
"They want to treat this mountain as if it's a pristine mountain undisturbed where it has never been used for anything but religious purposes," he said. "In fact, it is one of the most extensively mined mountains in Nevada. Mining has been the dominant use of this land for the last 145 years."
Wikstrom said Barrick spent $380 million in capital costs and drilling exploration, and it took three years to secure BLM approval of the project.
"It's not a 'mother-may-I' process. It's a long, drawn-out and complicated process," he said.
Flynn told the judge the fact previous, smaller scale mining occurred on the mountain "doesn't matter."
"This mine is massive. It is no comparison," he said. "If you do not grant the preliminary injunction, they are going to start blasting right away."