RENO, Nev. - In the Silver State, the battle over whether to send nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain has taken center stage. But another storm is brewing here, thanks to a substance with a half-life considerably shorter than plutonium: cat poop.
Chicago-based Oil-Dri Corporation, which bills itself as the world's largest kitty-litter producer, wants to mine clay on public land in Hungry Valley, about 10 miles north of the Reno-Sparks area. The company will process the clay on-site into kitty litter and industrial absorbents.
"It's very important to us," says Craig Paisley, who will manage the project, if it's approved. "Oil-Dri has been looking for this quality of a deposit in the (West) for at least the last 15 to 20 years."
But fur is flying over the proposal. "We don't need a mine practically within city limits. We need open space and we need quiet neighborhoods," says Tom Myers, head of the activist group Great Basin Mine Watch.
The project is an especially bitter pill for the approximately 500 members of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony who live in Hungry Valley. The tribe, a mix of Paiute, Washoe and Shoshone Indians, bought land in the valley in the mid-1980s to relieve housing pressure at its original reservation in Reno. But Oil-Dri's claims lie hard against the tribe's land, and the two pits the company plans to dig will be about a mile and a half from the Hungry Valley Community.
"This is really the only pristine valley located in such close proximity to the Reno-Sparks area," says Dave Hunkup, a member of the tribal council. "Once this starts being developed, especially with an industry like mining, it's never going to be the same."
Oil-Dri wants to mine approximately 271 acres of BLM land over 20 years, following a rolling schedule which would see eight acres actively mined each year. The company is expected to annually remove about 270,000 tons of raw material, which would be processed into about 135,000 tons of product; the remainder would be returned to the pits as backfill.
Oil-Dri originally broached its proposal to the Indian Colony in May 1999. "When they showed us the pictures of the plant and their open pits in Georgia, it just sent up red flags," says Diana Crutcher-Smith, another member of the tribal council who has been instrumental in rallying opposition to the project.
To carry out its operations, Oil-Dri needs to secure a special-use permit from Washoe County. To stave off approval, says Crutcher-Smith, "We asked the county not to make any decisions on a permit until BLM did an environmental impact statement."
"The colony started a media blitz," says Terri Knutson, BLM's environmental impact statement project manager. A series of radio ads and mailings to neighborhoods that could be affected by the mine established cohesive opposition, Crutcher-Smith says.
After the BLM released the draft EIS this May, the agency received 550 of the colony's pre-printed cards opposing the project as well as 120 additional comment letters, "probably 99 percent" of which, says Knutson, were against the mine.
A CIA document
The crux of the fight centers on the clay's composition. An analysis of the material, included in the draft EIS, shows that it contains arsenic, as well as cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury. The concern of the colony and Great Basin Mine Watch is that heavy metals in the processed backfill may leach into groundwater or get blown into the air by the valley's persistent winds.
"I think there's a good chance that we'd increase the cancer rates as a result of this stuff blowing out of here," says Great Basin Mine Watch's Myers.
When BLM released the data used to determine the clay's composition, "It looked like a CIA document," says Myers. "All the information that one would need to assess the material is blacked out." In a letter to the colony, BLM field office manager John Singlaub said that the censored data was Oil-Dri's proprietary information, under a provision in the Freedom of Information Act which exempts the release of trade secrets.
Such seeming secrecy has left the colony frustrated.
"We know that there are certain things in the soil like arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury that are toxic. What we don't know is, after processing it ... are the arsenic levels going to be a higher concentration?" asks Todd Irvine, the tribe's government relations coordinator. "We can't predict the effect, but we know it's not going to be good."
"The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony is applying a different kind of standard to this," says the BLM's Knutson. "The arsenic levels are well below the EPA levels." Nonetheless, BLM has directed Oil-Dri to conduct additional sampling and analysis of the clay for inclusion in the final EIS.
Oil-Dri maintains that the health concerns are unfounded. "Nothing that we're going to be doing in our process is going to release anything or do anything to anybody that is harmful," says Oil-Dri's Paisley. "We do really want to be a good neighbor."
"The colony wants to be good neighbors, too," says Hunkup. "But it's just what they're going to do to the land. We feel it's going to change our whole quality of life here, and that's what we're opposed to."
The fight has reached a temporary lull while the BLM prepares the final EIS. The large number of public comments has slowed the process, and the document will probably be available by mid-October. The county special-use permit process awaits the release, says Washoe County planner Bill Whitney. "We're going to take (the document) to our citizens' advisory boards, and then to a planning commission public hearing."
That, however, may just be the prelude to a long string of appeals.
"We'll do what we have to do," says Crutcher-Smith. "We're planning on going all the way, wherever that leads us."
Former HCN intern Matt Jenkins writes from Paonia, Colorado.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- Todd Irvine, Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, 775/329-2936;
- Great Basin Mine Watch, 775/348-1986, www.greatbasinminewatch.org;
- Bureau of Land Management, 775/885-6000;
- Oil-Dri Corporation, 775/337-2556.
Copyright © 2001 HCN and Matt Jenkins