The lawsuit against Barrick Gold of North America’s Cortez Hills Project that is still pending in U.S. District Court in Reno lost a little steam this week because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The nation’s high court turned down an appeal from Indian tribes in Arizona that had a direct link to the lawsuit filed by Western Shoshone tribes, the Western Shoshone Defense Project and Great Basin Resource Watch.
Part of the Cortez Hills case was the contention that the mining project on the foothills of Mount Tenabo in Lander County violated federal law on religious freedom, but the Supreme Court’s ruling led to the tribes dropping that part of the lawsuit.
“We will be dropping the claim, but we will be going forward on the other issues,” Colorado-based Western Mining Action Project lawyer Jeff Parsons said this week.
Western Mining Action Project is representing the Western Shoshone tribes, and lawyer Roger Flynn agreed in earlier discovery documents filed with the Reno court that the tribes would drop the claim based on the Religious Freedoms Restoration Act if the high court refused to hear the Navajo Nations case. That case involved an effort to block expansion of a ski resort on a mountain at the Arizona Snowbowl ski area north of Flagstaff.
The U.S. District Court action also involved Barrick’s request for the names of all the Western Shoshone who have worshipped at the Mount Tenabo site over the years, and Barrick Gold of North America Vice President and General Counsel Rich Haddock said Friday Barrick’s request falls away, as well.
“It will be somewhat streamlined now,” he said of the court actions in Reno.
He said the case will now be determined on administrative records and oral arguments. No witnesses will be called.
The U.S. District Court has until next summer to decide on the lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over its approval of the Cortez Hills Project, Haddock said. Barrick is an intervenor in the case.
This court action in Reno is separate but related to the Western Shoshone appeal that a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard this week in San Francisco. The court will issue an opinion later.
The appeal was over the district court’s ruling that the BLM had sufficiently studied the impacts of the Cortez Hills Project before permitting the project to go ahead, based on the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
John Hadder of the Great Basin Resource Watch said Thursday “it was a good hearing. The judges asked a lot of good questions of our attorney, Barrick’s attorneys and the U.S. attorney.” The Justice Department is representing the BLM in the appeal.
Hadder also said there were six Western Shoshone grandmothers from Nevada and Idaho at the hearing in San Francisco for a temporary injunction against Cortez Hills.
Barrick’s Haddock said the judges “asked good questions of both sides and the matter is now in their hands. We hope they agree with the trial court.”
Flynn told the 9th Circuit Court panel that BLM was wrong to determine there was no religious site at the Cortez Hills location, claiming BLM ignored the record, but Barrick attorney Francis Wikstrom argued that archaeological surveys showed the mine site is not a sacred site.
BLM found evidence of religious activity at the top of Mount Tenabo, at the White Cliffs and in Horse Canyon, but not where the open pit mine is being developed, he said, according to an audio recording of the proceedings.
Wikstrom also said the Western Shoshone had no right to “sandbag” the BLM by waiting until comments to the draft environmental impact statement to claim the Cortez Hills site is sacred.
The Justice Department’s attorney for the BLM, Sambhav Sankar, said there is “nothing in the administrative record” to support the claim that the Western Shoshone use the Cortez Hills Project site for religious purposes.
Barrick has been developing Cortez Hills since BLM approval last November, although the company didn’t go full-speed ahead until after the U.S. District Court in Reno denied the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction to stop the work.
Lou Schack, manager of communications and community affairs for Barrick, said there are roughly 400 contractors working at Cortez Hills now and 830 Barrick employees at the Cortez operations that also include the Pipeline Mine.
U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks said in January when he denied the preliminary injunction that the Barrick project provides major economic benefits to the area.
“Based on the record, there would be more Western Shoshone who would lose their jobs than would worship” at Mount Tenabo, if the court halted the mining project, Wikstrom said.