A recent court ruling could give local communities more control over mining projects on federal land. On Dec. 30, a Nevada district court judge ruled that Washoe County has the authority to deny a company’s proposal to mine clay for cat litter near the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.

In 1999, the Chicago-based Oil-Dri Corporation announced plans to unearth clay on Bureau of Land Management land only a few hundred feet from the Colony’s neighborhood in Hungry Valley, and process it into kitty litter (HCN, 9/10/01: Nevada tribe says kitty litter plan stinks). The BLM approved Oil-Dri’s proposal on the condition that the company obtain a special use permit from Washoe County. But Washoe County denied that permit, citing concerns that the mine would contaminate the air and groundwater with arsenic, lead and cadmium.

In 2002, Oil-Dri, backed by the federal government, sued the county. Invoking the 1872 Mining Law, which was established to encourage gold mining on federal land, Justice and Interior Department lawyers argued that Washoe County could not deny the right to mine on federal land. However, Nevada District Court Judge James Hardesty disagreed.

Hardesty’s ruling is the first to allow a local government to override the federal mining law in response to community and environmental safety concerns, says Western Mining Action Project attorney Roger Flynn, who argued against Oil-Dri in court. He expects the ruling to become a model for future court decisions.

Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Chairman Arlan Melendez believes the case’s outcome shows that the federal government must be more considerate of residents who live near proposed mining projects.

Oil-Dri’s representatives will not comment on the case, but the company has until the end of January to appeal the court’s decision.