Nevada federal judge refuses to grant injunction to halt Cortez Hills gold project

Source: Kosich

Date of publication: 
27 January 2009

RENO, NV – Citing the “huge implications to the public at a time of severe economic difficulties,” a Reno federal court judge refused to issue a preliminary injunction to stop construction on Barrick’s one-million-ounce per year Cortez Hills gold project.

In his ruling from the bench Monday afternoon, Judge Larry Hicks said recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals placed a substantial burden on the Western Shoshone Defense Project, Great Basin Resources Watch, and other plaintiffs to obtain injunctive relief from the court to stop the project.

Hicks ruled that the plaintiffs including the Te-Moak Western Shoshone Tribe did not fully demonstrate how the development of the Cortez Hills gold mine is a violation of the federal Religious Freedom Act, which governs Native American worship of sacred sites, such as the base of Mt. Tenabo, which is adjacent to the project.

The plaintiffs had argued that their right to engage in prayer and religious activities in the area would be substantially harmed by the expansion of gold mining in Nevada’s Crescent Valley. However, Judge Hicks found the valley was “clearly a central mining area which was developed even before the state became a state.”

Hicks noted that silver mining began in the area in the 1860s, town sites were established, and even a narrow gauge railroad was built to serve the predominant activity in the region, mining. Meanwhile, Mt. Tenabo had been staked by the Wilson brothers in the 1960s and 1970s. Witness Bill Wilson had told the court he had never seen any Western Shoshone people engage in any form of worship or religious activity over the years he had been living at Mt. Tenabo.

Nevertheless, Hicks made it very clear that he was not completely ruling out the important of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the upcoming hearing on the actual lawsuit filed against the gold project.

Claims by the plaintiffs that the Bureau of Land Management failed to do an adequate job in its review and studies of the project were challenged by Hicks, who found the agency had produced a “very thorough environmental impact statement,” which represents “thousands and thousands of hours of work product and expertise.”

Hicks said he found no violations of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) or the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in his review of the Cortez Hills EIS.

The judge told the parties that he was “awestruck by the monetary implications of this action,” as two economic and taxation experts testified the delay of Cortez Hills would cost county and state government and the school district millions of dollars in tax revenue at a time when government budgets are already in deficit.

Hicks said he also found it very significant that a number of Western Shoshone people were in favor of the Cortez Hills project because of the employment and business opportunities it offers to Native American people in the area. However, Hicks denied a motion by the U.S. Government and Barrick to deny legal standing to the Shoshone peoples who had filed the lawsuit to stop the project.

Greg Lang, president of Barrick Gold North America, said in a statement, “As we watch the continuing economic turmoil in urban Nevada and elsewhere, we are fortunate to be able to provide hundreds of good jobs and the many other benefits this project brings to rural Nevada.” Among those who will be employed at Cortez Hills are former employees of the Queenstake Jerritt Canyon operation which closed several months ago due to a lack of funds.

“In particular, we look forward to continuing to work with the Western Shoshone communities to ensure that the project is beneficial to their interests,” Lang added.

In an interview with Mineweb after the ruling, Lou Schack, manager, communications and community affairs for Barrick Gold North America, called Cortez Hills “the most studied and scrutinized mining project in Nevada.”

“We are encouraged that our permit for the Cortez Hills project was thoroughly reviewed and responsibly approved by the BLM,” he added.

Schack noted that Cortez Hills is very important to the economic stability of rural Nevada. “Cortez Hills will sustain hundreds of high-paying jobs while bringing many years of critical tax revenues and other benefits to the people of Lander, Elko and Eureka counties.”