By Deb Murphy
Friends of the Inyo, Sierra Club and other environmental groups have requested the Bureau of Land Management take another look at its decision to allow for gold exploration on the Conglomerate Mesa.
BLM issued a Finding of No Significant Impact for the project in mid-May. The formal request was sent to BLM’s State Director Jerome Perez last week. This past Monday, the organization held a press briefing at its Bishop offices, with legal counsel Todd Tucci on speaker-phone.
The request also asks for a stay during the 21-day review period.
The company, Silver Standard U.S. Holdings, Inc.’s geologist Angela Johnson was asked for the timeline on the project. She declined to comment.
The project involves seven drilling sites in a previously disturbed portion of the mesa. Silver Standard intends to drill past the existing 400-foot holes to a depth of 1,000 feet. Heavy equipment, water solvents are all part of the process. BLM will require equipment to be helicoptered to the site rather than reconstructing the road built for the initial exploration. According to Wendy Schneider, executive director of Friends, the old road is still clearly visible 20-years after the fact, despite efforts to restore the area to its original state.
This is the first step in a process to get BLM to rescind its decision. According to Tucci, if the request is turned down, the next step is either an appeal of the decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals or go to court.
Tucci ran through a long list of issues raised in the request, the majority of which were violations of national environmental legislation and procedures, including BLM’s own Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. BLM failed to conduct required monitoring of sensitive species, violated the Conservation Management Actions to protect Joshua Tree woodlands, failed to prevent unnecessary or undue degradation or consider impairment of the scenic and environmental values, ignored the obligation to take a “hard look” at the impact of the decision in violation of the National Environmental Protect Act and failed to look at baseline conditions of ground water resources or assess impacts on surface water.
“There were deficiencies in BLM’s analysis,” said Schneider.
Last November, Johnson went before the Inyo Board of Supervisors asking for a letter of support. She encouraged the Board to just look at the exploration, not the potential for a heap leach mine. Sierra Club’s Fran Hunt was concerned the approval of the exploration would set a full-out mining project in motion. “Silver Standard will build momentum toward an open pit mining operation,” she said.
Hunt described the heap leach mining process. Material is removed from the earth, crushed and irrigated with a leach solution that contains cyanide. The solution leaches the minerals from the pile which is then pushed back into the hole.
According to Schneider, Montana has banned heap leach mining and a former site in Washington is now a Super Fund site.
Cindy Kamler, executive director of the Wildcare Eastern Sierra, said “there is no upside, no cure.”
Conglomerate Mesa was part of Kathy Bancroft’s traditional home land. A member of the Lone Pine Paiute Tribe, Bancroft spoke of the cultural significance of the area, a place tribal members would go to collect food from the Pinon trees. “I look at the view,” she said “and know that country tells stories.”