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Judge refuses to halt huge Nevada gold mine

by Scott SonnerAssociated Press
January 26th, 2009

A federal judge ruled Monday a massive gold mine project could proceed in northeast Nevada despite a bid by a Western tribe and conservationists to block it on religious and environmental grounds.

U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks ruled there's not enough evidence to force Barrick Gold Corp. to postpone digging a 2,000-foot deep open pit at the Cortez Hills mine on Mount Tenabo 250 miles east of Reno until a trial is held on the merits of the project.

The Great Basin Resource Watch and the Western Shoshone claimed the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's review of the Toronto-based company's proposed mine ignores some of the environmental effects and disregards tribal leaders' concerns it will destroy a sacred landmark.

Hicks, who took more than a half hour to explain his ruling from the bench, said a preliminary injunction like the one the plaintiffs wanted is an "extraordinary remedy" taken only when there is a likelihood they will prevail at trial.

He said that while he might change his mind, so far mine opponents had failed to prove construction of the mine would violate the tribe's religious freedoms or that the BLM violated any federal environmental laws in approving the mine under the Mining Act of 1872.

"The effect of the proposed mining project is on the plaintiffs' subjective, emotional experience. It is offensive to their sensibilities and in the mind of some will desecrate a sacred mountain," Hicks said.

"Nevertheless, the diminishment of that spirituality-as serious as it may be-under the Supreme Court's holdings it is not a substantial burden on religious freedom," he said.

Hicks said he also disagreed with the opponents' claims that the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act and Federal Land Management Policy Act by failing to adequately consider effects on groundwater and scenic values of the area.

He said an environmental study was very thorough.

"It is very clear it represents thousands and thousands of work hours by BLM," Hicks said.

"The court is satisfied they met the laws that require the BLM to take a hard look at all of the issues that pertain to a project such as this one," he said.

Louis Schack, manager of communications and community affairs for Barrick Gold of North America, said the company was glad Hicks agreed the project was "thoroughly reviewed and responsibly approved" by the BLM.

"This is the most studied and scrutinized mining project in Nevada. It is also very important to the economic stability of rural Nevada," Schack said.

Roger Flynn, a lawyer with the Western Mining Action Project representing the tribe and the Great Basin Resource Watch, said before the ruling was issued that the plaintiffs would consider appealing to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. He did not immediately return a telephone call or e-mail seeking comment after the ruling.

Lawyers for Barrick-the largest gold mining company in the world-said any delay in digging the mine would have caused an undue financial hardship on the company and its workers during tough economic times.

The company is prepared to spend $640,000 a day for the next 15 months, said Francis Wikstrom, a lawyer for Barrick. He said a lot of that money would remain in Nevada, a state that produces more gold than any other-trailing only South Africa, Australia and China internationally.

Thirty workers already have been laid off and 250 to 300 more would be out of work and unlikely to find other jobs if the project had been halted, he said.

"This is basically the only game in town in northern Nevada," Wikstrom said. "People need to feed their families."

Hicks said the case has "tremendous significance" to the tribe, the mining company and its workers.

"And it certainly has huge implications to the public at a time of severe economic difficulties throughout the nation, not just in Nevada," he said.

Hick said that while there was no question Mount Tenabo was a very important mountain to the Western Shoshone, mining has been prevalent on the mountain since the 1860s-even before Nevada was a state.


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