Battle over mining law brewing in Nevada cat litter fight
RENO, Nev. (AP) — County commissioners set the stage for a legal battle over a 130-year-old federal mining law when they denied the world’s largest maker of cat litter a permit to mine and process clay on the outskirts of Reno
The Washoe County Board of Commissioners rejected the special use permit on a 3-2 vote late Tuesday night despite Oil-Dri’s claims that the county has no authority to block access to the company’s mineral rights on federal land under the General Mining Law of 1872.
Board members examined a plastic dish of cat litter before voting.
“I think it does have significant environmental impact on our community,” Commission Chairman Pete Sferrazza said in voting with the majority.
Opponents said the project could cause water shortages, would pollute the air and water, clog residential streets with truck traffic and ruin the rustic qualities of the Hungry Valley area, just 10 miles north of downtown Reno.
Officials for the Chicago-based Oil-Dri vowed to go forward with the mine regardless of the county’s denial of the permit needed to construct the processing plant proposed on neighboring private land.
“One way or another, we’re going to mine, whether we have to go to district court or ship the clay out or whatever,” Oil-Dri Vice President Bob Vetere said afterward.
The Bureau of Land Management earlier approved the mine proposed on about 300 acres of BLM land neighboring the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, saying it had no authority to deny a legal claim staked under the mining law.
But environmentalists and tribal leaders said they are ready for a court battle over the 19th century law that was aimed at promoting development of valuable minerals in the Old West.
“We think the 1872 mining act is being taken to an absurd level,” said Pat Smith, a lawyer for the Indian Colony.
“We don’t think Congress in 1872 was thinking of clumping kitty litter in under this law,” he said during a public hearing that stretched seven hours before the final vote about 11:40 p.m. Tuesday.
“They are talking about mining an area equal to 100 football fields over the life of the mine right in front of (the colony’s) community center.”
More than 200 opponents of the project jammed the hearing in opposition to Oil-Dri, beating drums outside the county building and waving signs that read, “Where will the deer and the antelope play?” and “Oil-Dri: Mine Your Own Business.”
“I really think this could end up being some kind of defining case on the 1872 mining law,” said Tom Myers, a hydrologist and executive director of the Great Basin Mine Watch who has been involved in numerous appeals challenging mining projects in Nevada.
Myers said if the costs of easing environmental damage from the mine exceeds the value of the minerals, the validity of the claim would be in question.
“Oil-Dri is living under a 1960s interpretation of the law when a plaintiff could start mining without even telling the government,” Myers said. “A mining claim is valid only if it can meet all local regulations.”
Commissioners Jim Shaw and Jim Galloway joined Sferrazza in opposing the project, and Commissioners Joanne Bond and Ted Short supported Oil-Dri’s bid.
“I think if I lived in those valleys, I would not want that Oil-Dri processing plant there,” Shaw said.
Oil-Dri officials say their project would produce about 100 jobs and generate $12 million annually for the local economy. The project is the result of a search started 20 years ago for a new source of raw material for West Coast customers who sell Oil-Dri cat litter under several brand names.
“We’re businessmen,” Vetere told the commission Tuesday night.
“We’re being told by our customers, the Chloroxes and the Wal-Marts of the world that they want this clay and they want it quick.”
Oil-Dri maintains that while the county has authority to block the processing plant, it cannot deny the mining operation based on BLM’s approval as well as earlier state approval of air, water and reclamation permits.
“With these permits in place, Oil-Dri has the legal ability to go out and mine on federal land regardless of what this commission does,” Oil-Dri lawyer Steve Mollath told the commission.
Company officials said they may submit a new plan to the BLM calling for the processing plant to be built on federal land, or ship the clay to an existing processing plant — a move they said would reduce the number of jobs and increase truck traffic in the Reno area.
Bond and Short said they fear Tuesday’s vote will mean the county will lose jurisdiction over the project if it is built on federal land.
On the Net:
Reno-Sparks Indian Colony: http://www.rsic.org/
Washoe County: http://www.co.washoe.nv.us/