Elko Independent

Monday, January 05, 2004

Gibbons' plan to sell public land for mining criticized

FALLON, Nev. (AP) Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., and environmentalists are clashing over his plan to sell public land in Nevada to two mining companies that was announced after Christmas. Gibbons maintains the plan would give a boost to the rural economy, but environmentalists call it an end run on the nation's environmental laws to the benefit of one special interest.

The bill calls for the sale of surface rights of roughly 60,000 acres to Placer Dome U.S. and Graymont Western U.S. and the companies would then be required to provide roughly 20,000 acres of private land to the federal government.

Gibbons, founder and co-chairman of the Congressional Mining Caucus, was honored earlier this month by the Northwest Mining Association for his distinguished service to the minerals industry, including helping to repeal some Clinton-era regulations.

His plan calls for the sale of various plots of federal land in Elko, Eureka, Humboldt, Lander and White Pine counties to Placer Dome U.S. Inc. or Graymont Western U.S. Inc.

The proposal would allow the companies to bypass what Gibbons views as excessive red tape: the permitting process of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Even mines on private land are subject to environmental regulations but not through NEPA. Gibbons complained the NEPA process takes several years and is subject to time-consuming lawsuits.

"By eliminating that one step, the probability of permitting a mine should increase, and the time frame should substantially decrease,'' he told the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle Standard newspaper.

But environmentalists said the NEPA process is an important step that allows the public a chance to voice opinions.

"It's pretty transparent. What they're trying to do is take public input out of the process,'' said Christie Whiteside, a spokeswoman for the Great Basin Mine Watch environmental group. "This is a direct attack on the people's right to have a say.''

Whiteside also decried the privatization of public lands to placate corporate desires. Gibbons' proposal would earmark mineral royalty payments to go toward the California Interpretive Trail Center in Elko, the Bureau of Land Management's abandoned mine reclamation program and the state's education fund.

In another unrelated case also involving Placer Dome and the federal government, the Department of Energy recently announced that it has identified two transportation corridors for transportation of nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. The second choice route, known as the “Carlin Corridor,” is proposed to run directly through Placer Dome’s mining operations in Crescent Valley. During a pre-environmental impact statement hearing in Crescent Valley several months ago, DOE officials were questioned about the impact this route would have on Placer Dome. The DOE officials responded that arrangements would be made with private parties who owned land that would be impacted by the proposed route.

Some of Gibbons' largest campaign contributions come from mining companies, the Fallon newspaper reported.

Mining is the driving force of the rural economy, employing more than 10,000 people directly and accounting for countless other jobs. Nevada's second-largest industry is mining, and the state is the world's third-biggest producer of gold behind only South Africa and Australia.

Storied compiled from AP and Elko Independent staff reports.