On December 3, 2009, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling enjoining the construction and operation of the Cortez Hills gold mine, proposed by Barrick Gold Corporation. The Ninth Circuit reversed the decision of the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada, which had denied the motion for preliminary injunction filed by the plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs in the case are: the South Fork Band Council of Western Shoshone, the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians, the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, the Western Shoshone Defense Project, and Great Basin Resource Watch (the “plaintiffs”). The plaintiffs challenged the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) decision to approve the Cortez Hills Mine in November of 2008.
BLM Violated NEPA
In overturning the District Court’s decision, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their legal arguments that BLM violated federal environmental and public land law in approving the mine. The Ninth Circuit also found that enjoining the mine was in the public interest due to the “irreparable environmental harm threatened by this massive project.” Among other issues, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on their claims that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act in failing to properly analyze the environmental impacts from the mine on groundwater, air quality, and other resources. “Suspending a project until that consideration has occurred thus comports with the public interest.”
Spiritual Importance of
Mt. Tenabo Upheld
The Cortez Hills Mine would be one of the largest open pit cyanide heap leach gold mines in the United States. It would be located on the flank of Mount Tenabo — an area well-known for its spiritual and cultural importance to the Western Shoshone. The area is home to local Shoshone creation stories, spirit life, medicinal, food and ceremonial plants and items and continues to be used to this day by Shoshone for spiritual and cultural practices. Over the years, tens of thousands of individuals and organizations from across the United States and around the world have joined with the Shoshone and voiced their opposition to this mine. The proposed mine area has been found by the BLM, in repeated ethnographic studies, as being of extreme spiritual and cultural importance to the Western Shoshone. One report says: “Mt. Tenabo is … considered a traditional locus of power and source of life, and figures in creation stories and world renewal. As the tallest mountain in the area — the most likely to capture snow and generate water to grow piñon and nourish life — it is literally a life-giver. Water is to earth what blood is to the body, and these subterranean waterways are likened to the earth’s arteries and veins.”
Threat to Groundwater
The mine is proposed by Barrick Gold Corporation, the world’s largest gold mining company, headquartered in Toronto, Canada. The company planned to blast and excavate a massive new open pit on Mount Tenabo over 800 acres in size, with a depth of over 2,000 feet. It would include several new waste disposal and processing facilities (including a cyanide heap-leaching facility), consisting of approximately 1,577 million tons of waste rock, 53 million tons of tailings material, and 112 million tons of spent heap leach material. The mine would include an extensive groundwater pumping system to dewater Mount Tenabo (in order to keep the open pit and mine workings dry during mining) and associated water pipelines that would transport the pumped water away from Mount Tenabo. The mine would permanently destroy approximately 6,800 acres of land on and around Mount Tenabo, over 90% of which is classified as federal “public” land. Despite the pending case before the Ninth Circuit appealing the District Court’s denial of the Plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction in January, 2009, Barrick decided to begin construction of the mine. The Ninth Circuit’s ruling ordered the District Court to issue an injunction against the mine.
Native Applause for Court’s Action
“We are pleased with the Ninth Circuit’s ruling,” said Larson Bill, Tribal Council Member of the South Fork Band Council and Te-Moak Tribe. “This is a result of Western Shoshone people remaining committed to protecting our land and environment. It is unfortunate that the company decided to push this forward without addressing all concerns, especially those of the Shoshone people. Barrick operates world wide and is well-versed on these issues — they knew that an injunction was a possibility — especially where there has been continuous opposition and litigation.”
Carrie Dann, a world renowned Western Shoshone grandmother, and recipient of the Right Livelihood Award (known as the “alternative Nobel Peace Prize”) has been among those to lead the fight to protect Mount Tenabo from mining for over 15 years. “Mount Tenabo should be left alone — no further disturbance. This mine will drain the water from Mount Tenabo. They will be sucking the water out of the mountain forever. The destruction of the water is like the destruction of the blood of the earth; you are destroying life of the earth and the people and wildlife that depend on it. Dewatering is taking the life of future generations. Water is sacred, all life depends on it,” Dann said.
“None of us are opposed to mining, if it is done responsibly, however this project is as irresponsible as it gets. The BLM has a legal responsibility to protect the air, water, and ecological values of the area as well as the religious freedom of Western Shoshone, and to fully analyze the impacts of a proposed project. The Ninth Circuit correctly found that BLM failed in its legal responsibilities,” said John Hadder, Executive Director of Great Basin Resource Watch.
The plaintiffs are represented by Roger Flynn of the non-profit legal firm, the Western Mining Action Project, based on Colorado, which specializes in mining, public land, and environmental law.
For more information on the Cortez Hills Project, Mount Tenabo, and the legal challenge go to www.gbrw.org and www.wsdp.org. The Ninth Circuit Decision can be downloaded at: http://www.gbrw.org/images/stories/publications/tenabo/Ninth_Circuit_injunction_ruling_12-3-09.pdf . Φ
Contacts: Larson Bill, South Fork Western Shoshone, 775.397.6726, 775.744.2537. John Hadder, Great Basin Resource Watch, 775.722.4056. Julie Cavanaugh-Bill, Western Shoshone Defense Project, 775.397.1371. Roger Flynn, Western Mining Action Project, 303.823.5738. This article was prepared on behalf of these contacts.
Photos courtesy of Chris Sewall/Western Shoshone Defense Project and http://i8.photobucket.com/albums/a46/mano10/Black%20Mesa/DSCF6477.jpg