RENO, Nev. (AP) — The Nevada Democrat who’s the heir apparent to the late Sen. Harry Reid’s role as chief defender of the mining industry across the West is for the first time feeling the wrath of environmentalists, who otherwise consider her an ally.
National environmental groups, Native American tribes and progressive activists in Nevada are vigorously protesting a pro-mining bill Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto introduced this week.
The Mining Regulatory Clarity Act effectively would insulate mining companies from a U.S. appeals court ruling that blocked a copper mine in Arizona. The court decision was a significant victory for environmentalists that poses perhaps the first real threat in nearly a century to corporate mineral rights protected under a Civil War-era mining law.
“Sen. Cortez Masto has become a mining industry puppet 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 lobbyist for the Washington-based Earthjustice, called the bill “a wholesale giveaway to mining companies.”
”We thought she was an ally of the environment,” said Fermina Stevens, spokesperson for the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone in Elko.
Cortez Masto’s bill would ensure mining companies can use established mineral claims to dump waste on neighboring federal lands as they always had before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year adopted a stricter interpretation of the 1872 Mining Law.
Two federal judges in Nevada have adopted the decision in the Rosemont Copper Mine case. One ruling blocked a metals mine. The other concluded the U.S. Bureau of Land Management illegally approved a huge lithium mine near the Nevada-Oregon line, known to be the biggest U.S. deposit of the key ingredient in electric vehicle batteries.
Nevertheless, in that case U.S. District Judge Miranda Du allowed construction to begin while the bureau attempts to come into compliance with the new requirement that valuable minerals be validated beneath the land where the waste-rock dump is planned at Thacker Pass.
The San Francisco-based 9th Circuit has scheduled a June hearing on an appeal by environmentalists who say Du should have blocked the Thacker Pass mine altogether.
The Rosemont decision upended the government’s long-held position that the mining law automatically conveys the same rights established through valid mining claims to adjacent land for waste disposal without having to prove they've established the rights there.
Conservation groups had been fighting that portion of the law for decades. But many fear the victory will be short-lived if Cortez Masto's industry-backed legislation is fast-tracked through Congress or rolled into an appropriations bill.
“Now that the judicial system has finally begun to interpret the antiquated 1872 mining law in a way that calls into question the irresponsibility of the mining industry, ... we see the industry rushing to do damage control,” said Sarah Wochele, the mining justice organizer of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.
Sen. Harry Reid, the former majority leader who served in the Senate from 1987-2017, 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 pay no royalties for the precious minerals they dig. When President Ulysses Grant signed it, most miners used pickaxes and shovels instead of mechanical excavators to dig open pits deeper than the length of a football field.
Like Reid, Cortez Masto has championed environmental causes from clean air and water initiatives to creation of national monuments and conservation efforts at Lake Tahoe, while also enjoying significant campaign contributions from both conservationists and the mining industry.
And like Reid, she is committed to the tens of thousands of mining jobs in Nevada, the biggest U.S. gold producer. But across the landscape, the new “gold” has become lithium, and ramped-up production of electrical 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 clean energy and production and transmission,” said Danna Bennett, interim president of the Nevada Mining Association, who praised Cortez Masto's proposal and her “steadfast support” for the industry.
In response to the criticism from environmentalists, Cortez Masto's office said the bill simply reiterates that the claims process can proceed as it has previously and that mining would continue to be prohibited or severely restricted on more than half of federal lands.
The senator's office also pointed to support for the bill from labor unions, a key constituency who helped reelect Cortez Masto in November.
“Mining is one of the pillars of Nevada’s economy, and ensuring clarity around mining 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 running roughshod over environmental laws in a rush to approve new mining to meet growing demand for lithium and other materials.
“This will not make Nevada a leader in the out of control race for green energy, but will most certainly make the environment, water, air and communities throughout our state collateral damage in this process,” said Leslie Fry Sonné of the Citizens to Protect Smith Valley in Lyon County.
Thomas Nelson, board president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas in Tucson, Arizona, which helped fight the Rosemont Copper Mine, said Cortez Masto's legislation would “betray U.S. taxpayers,” and threaten recreation and the water supply for nearby ranches and residents.