RENO, Nev. (AP) – The Nevada Democrat, the heir apparent to the late Sen. Harry Reid’s role as the leading defender of the mining industry across the West, is for the first time feeling the wrath of environmentalists, who otherwise view her as a ally .
National environmental groups, Native American tribes and progressive activists in Nevada are protesting vigorously against a pro-mining bill introduced this week by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.
The Mining Regulatory Clarity Act would effectively insulate mining companies from a US appeals court ruling that blocked a copper mine in Arizona. The court decisions were a significant victory for conservationists that poses perhaps the first real threat in nearly a century to corporate mining rights protected by a Civil War-era mining law.
“Sen. Cortez Masto has become a puppet of the mining industry and is throwing communities, tribes and wildlife under the bus,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director of the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity.
Blaine Miller-McFeeley, a Washington-based Earthjustice lobbyist, called the bill “a wholesale giveaway to mining companies.”
“We thought she was an ally to the environment,” Fermina Stevens, a spokeswoman for the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone told Elko.
Cortez Masto’s bill would ensure mining companies use consolidated mining claims to dump waste on nearby federal lands, as they always have before the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last year adopted a stricter interpretation of the Mining Act of 1872.
Two Nevada federal judges issued the ruling in the Rosemont Copper Mine case. A ruling has blocked a metal mine. The other concluded that the US Bureau of Land Management illegally approved a huge lithium mine near the Nevada-Oregon line, known to be the largest US deposit of the key ingredient in electric vehicle batteries.
However, in that case US Judge Miranda Du allowed construction to begin as the bureau attempts to comply with the new requirement that valuable minerals must be validated below the ground where waste rock dumping is planned at Thackerpass.
San Francisco-based 9th Circuit has scheduled a June hearing on an appeal by environmentalists who say Du should have shut down the Thacker Pass mine altogether.
Rosemont’s decision overturned the government’s long-standing position that mining law automatically transfers the same rights established through valid mining claims to adjacent land for waste disposal without having to prove that it established rights there.
Conservation groups have been fighting that part of the law for decades. But many fear the victory will be short-lived if Cortez Masto’s industry-backed legislation is rushed through Congress or turned into an appropriations bill.
“Now that the judicial system has finally begun to interpret the antiquated 1872 Mining Act in a way that challenges the irresponsibility of the mining industry, … justice organizer of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.
Senator Harry Reid, the former Majority Leader who served in the Senate from 1987 to 2017, often single-handedly killed conservationists’ perennial attempts to reform the 1872 mining law and better protect fish, wildlife and water resources.
Under the 1872 law, mining companies do not pay royalties for the precious minerals they extract. When President Ulysses Grant signed it, most miners were using picks and shovels instead of mechanical excavators to dig open shafts deeper than the length of a football field.
Like Reid, Cortez Masto has championed environmental causes from clean air and water initiatives to the creation of national monuments and conservation efforts on Lake Tahoe, while also enjoying significant campaign contributions from both conservationists and the mining industry .
And like Reid, she is engaged in the tens of thousands of mining jobs in Nevada, the largest gold producer in the United States. But across the landscape, the new “gold” has become lithium, and ramping up the production of electric vehicles is a key part of President Joe Biden’s clean energy agenda.
“Nevada’s mining industry is essential to the nation’s future in terms of clean energy, manufacturing and transmission,” said Danna Bennett, interim president of the Nevada Mining Association, who praised Cortez Masto’s proposal and his ” continued support” to the industry.
In response to criticism from environmentalists, Cortez Masto’s office said the bill simply reaffirms that the grievance process can proceed as before and that mining will continue to be prohibited or severely restricted on more than half of the federal lands.
The senator’s office also indicated support for the bill from unions, a key constituency that helped re-elect Cortez Masto in November.
“Mining is a cornerstone of Nevada’s economy, and providing clarity on mineral claims is essential to our state’s economic development and our country’s green energy future,” said Rob Benner, secretary-treasurer of the Northern Nevada Central Labor Council.
Conservationists generally support renewable energy, but argue the government is trampling on environmental laws in a rush to approve new mining to meet growing demand for lithium and other materials.
“This won’t make Nevada a leader in the runaway race for green energy, but it will certainly make the environment, water, air, and communities across our state collateral damage in that process,” he said. Leslie Fry Sonné of Citizens to Protect Smith Valley in Lyon County.
Thomas Nelson, chairman of the board of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas in Tucson, Arizona, which has helped fight the Rosemont copper mine, said Cortez Masto’s legislation would “betray U.S. taxpayers” and threaten businesses recreation and water supply for nearby ranches and residents.