Debbie Coffey     Copyright  2011         All Rights Reserved.


“If indeed the pumping is draining the bedrock in the Cortez mountains, that means many springs and creeks are at risk and that their computer model was fatally flawed.  Of course this would be inconvenient information for Cortez so it is no surprise that they aren’t looking for the answers.” 


Mount Tenabo, is a sacred mountain for the Western Shoshone people.  It is located within the territory of the Western Shoshone Nation in Nevada, about  20 miles south and a little west of the city of Crescent Valley, NV. 

The Shoshone consider Mount Tenabo a source of power and life, and it is central in their stories of creation and world renewal.  The Shoshone use the top of the mountain for prayer and meditation, and they gather medicinal and food plants from the mountain.  These plants also feed the wildlife.  

In June, 2010, the Te-Moak tribe of the Shoshone, along with co-plaintiffs the Western Shoshone Defense Project (WSDP) and Great Basin Mine Watch, lost a legal battle that was waged for several years to stop the Department of Barrick Gold Mines

Interior, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and Barrick Gold (a Canadian mining company based in Toronto) from expanding Barrick’s Cortez Gold Mine at Mount Tenabo.  

Barrick’s Cortez Gold Mine expansion added a new surface “disturbance” of only 221 acres of land owned by the mine, but the expansion also included 6,412 acres of public land managed by the BLM’s Battle Mountain District. 

The Cortez Gold Mine’s use of water is explained by Christopher Sewall in an article for the Great Basin Resource Watch:    

“In order to operate, the (Cortez Mine) Pipeline mine must drop the water table over 800 ft. at the mine site, pumping anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 gallons of water per minute, 24 hours a day from wells over 1000 feet deep. 

This deep groundwater meets drinking water quality standards, with slightly elevated levels of fluoride as it is warm geothermal water. The mine then pumps it to a series of shallow ponds and trenches laid out in an arc several miles from the mine where it soaks this water back into the valley floor. Unfortunately the soil in the valley floor is full of salts, leftover from the evaporation of inland lakes and seas. When the clean water is filtered through the salty soils it is contaminated and no longer meets drinking water standards when it reaches the water table. 

The WSDP and its allies in Great Basin Resource Watch predicted this would happen, but the State and the BLM have allowed it to continue to this very day.

In addition to water contamination as a result of dewatering, we continue to be concerned that pumping at the Pipeline mine is affecting groundwater in the Cortez mountains.  Computer modeling done by Cortez indicated that there would be no waters affected by the pumping farther than a few miles from the mine site, no surface springs of creeks were predicted to be affected. 

However as soon as the pumps were turned on at Pipeline in September 1996, the old pit lake 7 miles across the valley at the older Cortez mine began to dry out until finally disappearing after remaining at a static level for a decade.  Initial studies indicated the water table in the bedrock around Cortez was dropping.  The WSDP and Minewatch pressured the BLM and mine to look into this. 

Cortez commissioned a study in 1998 to study this.  Its conclusion was that pumping at Pipeline might be affecting the water table but it was one of several different scenarios the report discussed.  Its final conclusion was that they needed a lot more data to understand what was going on. 

A follow up study conducted in 1999 reached the same conclusion that they needed more information.

Unfortunately we know of no additional studies after 1999.  This is especially important because in analyzing the impacts of the Pipeline Mine, the BLM relied upon these models to state that no surface waters and especially the springs around the flanks of Mt Tenabo and its adjacent mountains would not be affected by the pumping

If indeed the pumping is draining the bedrock in the Cortez mountains, that means many springs and creeks are at risk and that their computer model was fatally flawed.  Of course this would be inconvenient information for Cortez so it is no surprise that they aren’t looking for the answers.” 

Why would the Bureau of Land Management base its Environmental Impact Statement on studies that were vague, likely flawed, and done many years before.

The Shoshone claimed that the BLM’s approval of the Cortez Hills Expansion Project violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA).

At first, “the three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals granted an injunction to force Barrick Gold Corp. to postpone digging a 2,000-foot deep open pit at the Cortez Hills…the judges in San Francisco said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately analyze the mine’s potential to pollute the air with mercury emissions and dry up scarce water resources in Nevada’s high desert.

The appellate judges concluded BLM’s review was inadequate under the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a thorough examination of large-scale projects on federal land.  They said the agency didn’t fully consider the air quality impacts resulting from transporting ore to an off-site processing facility 70 miles away.

The judges also said the review didn’t do enough to examine the likelihood that pumping water out of the pit would cause the groundwater level to drop and potentially dry up more than a dozen streams and springs.”

In the end, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judges reserved judgment on whether the massive dewatering would result in “unnecessary and undue degradation,” stating “As to Plaintiff’s FLPMA-based mine dewatering claim, because it is yet to be seen whether the dewatering will cause unnecessary and undue degradation, the court will deny summary judgment to all parties.”  So, the impacts of groundwater pumping are still open to further legal battle. 

To give some additional history, when Cortez proposed the new mine in the early 1990’s, the elderly Shoshone Dann sisters (Carrie and the late Mary Dann) and the Western Shoshone Defense Project (WSDP) opposed this because of an unresolved land title issue and the fact that this mine would require dewatering, threatening the water, their most precious resource.  For more than 30 years, Carrie and Mary Dann fought the US government for Western Shoshone rights to millions of acres of land that stretch through Nevada into neighboring states.

Carrie Dann believes that the land still belongs to the Shoshone tribe under the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley.  She believes the BLM has no authority to regulate their grazing practices.  Dann also said it was her right as a native American to live off her ancestral land and refused to pay grazing fees.

In response, the BLM rounded up her cattle and horses.  In September of 2002, when they came for the Dann’s cattle, members of the Nevada Live Stock Association (NVLSA) were on hand to support the Dann sisters.  According to an eyewitness account in an NVLSA report, the BLM “impounded an unknown amount of cattle (BLM estimates of 200 head), with the help of Greg Cook of Vernal, Utah, and his hired rustlers as well as from 50 to 100 BLM and federal personnel.

Helicopters and surveillance airplanes roamed the skies.  The BLM deployed and established a lock down of a great portion of Eureka county with armed quasi-militarized BLM enforcement officers as well as other federal agents.

All access by roads, including the road from Carlin, Nevada and county access roads were blocked by BLM with assistance, on state highways, from the Nevada Highway Patrol.

BLM set up the evening before the attack in Pine Valley.

A large base camp with helipad, command post trailers, up to 100 personnel, the majority of which were armed.  Various types of weaponry, camouflage, military paraphernalia, night vision scopes, flack vests, as well as some special operations type personnel.  Manned four-wheel drive pickups and special camo-green ATVs were deployed throughout the area.”

During foaling season in 2003, under BLM Director Bob Abbey, the BLM rounded up over 500 of the Dann’s horses.  47 mares and foals that were taken to the Fish Creek Ranch died there.  According to “Indian Country Today,” “The horses, a few adults but mostly foals, died over a period of weeks, perhaps months, following the controversial roundup.  Some were stillborn, others died of starvation and many of the young were too weak to stand and died when they were trampled in a corral too small to hold them.”  Luke Wise was the rancher at Fish Creek Ranch at the time.  Another sentence in this article stood out “State and BLM officials think most of the horses targeted in the roundup will be estrays — not federally protected wild mustangs — and must be dealt with by state authorities.”  The BLM officials “THINK MOST” of the horses “will be” estrays?  They weren’t sure that none of these horses were our federally protected wild horses?

This was one of a series of confrontations, spanning decades, between the federal government and the Western Shoshone over lands the Shoshone people say are theirs, lands recognized by the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley.  Lands where trees have been cleared, streams have been contaminated with cyanide and mercury, wildlife has disappeared and the landscape is scarred by mile wide open pits and huge waste dumps.

Dann admitted that “the treaty allowed mining on Western Shoshone lands but pointed out that, in 1863, this amounted to a few men with pickaxes and explosives.”  But now she asks “Is there such a thing as responsible mining?”

Julie Fishel, a lawyer who volunteered to help Dann, considered this case one of the biggest “land swindles” in modern history.  Fishel, of the Western Shoshone defense project, stated about our government: “They are offering the Shoshone people approximately 15 cents an acre.  And at the same time they then turned around and were waiting to open up the same land for privatization for multinational corporate interest.”

For the Indian communities that, like Dann, still rely on the land for ranching and subsistence farming, sacred pools used for ritual are diminishing or poisoned; mountains of legend and folklore are dynamited and turned into toxic waste dumps.  Carrie Dann stated, “For us, the Earth is a sacred thing… The Earth, the air, the water and the sun are all sacred to us and they are being destroyed, polluted and contaminated.  For us, this is like spiritual genocide.”

If you look at the projects in each BLM field office,  you’ll see that corporations, often foreign owned, are getting the green light for projects that use massive amounts of our public lands, resources and water.    

Just one mine in Nevada (Barrick Gold’s Goldstrike Mine) has pumped over 383 BILLION gallons of water from an aquifer.  (And that was a 2005 statistic, so it’s much more than that by now.)  According to a New York Times article by Kirk Johnson, nearly 10 million gallons of water a day is draining away from the driest state in the nation. 

To make one gold wedding band, about 20 tons of earth must be excavated. 

Large scale open-pit mining takes millions of gallons of water, mostly to dilute the cyanide used to soak the ore and separate its microscopic bits of gold.  About 20 of Nevada’s major gold mines may not last much longer than 2015, but that’s when the biggest problems will begin.  The vast pits they leave behind will create a deficit in the aquifer, and scientists estimate it could take 200 years or more to replenish the groundwater. 

When these mines close, about 40 pits, from Goldstrike’s Betze-Post to smaller mines like Newmont’s Lone Tree, will start to fill with water.  These artificial lakes will store an estimated 500 billion gallons or more of water.  This sounds good, BUT in the hot desert sun, the water will constantly evaporate, and for every gallon of evaporation, the lakes will draw another gallon from the aquifer beneath themThey will be sucking water from the aquifer forever.  Some lakes are expected to be poisonous (laced with arsenic and selenium) and others may have metal and acid concentrations toxic to fish. 

The reason the problem gets worse after a mine closes is because of this: While the mine is in operation, pumping drains the aquifer in the area surrounding the open pit, creating an area devoid of water or a “cone of depression.”  When the mine closes and pumping stops, the groundwater is sucked back into the cone of depression as the system tries to reach equilibrium.  The pit, formerly full of rock, but now empty, will pull groundwater from the surrounding areas for decades, and it can affect surface and groundwater flows up to 50 square miles away. 

While allowing, and even promoting, mining expansions, the BLM has been rounding up thousands of our wild horses in Nevada and other states.  In the Antelope Complex (Wells and Schell Field Offices of the BLM’s Elko and Ely District offices), the BLM planned to leave only 471-788 wild horses on 1,306,766 acres of public land.  Even with 788 horses, that’s only about one horse every 1,658 acres.  

The BLM’s Environmental Assessment (EA) states that they need to round up these wild horses to “prevent unnecessary or undue degradation of the public lands and to protect rangeland resources from deterioration associated with excess populations of wild horses within the HMAs and use of rangeland resources by wild horses outside the HMA boundaries.” 

BLM field offices can bypass an Environmental Assessment (EA) by determining there isn’t a significant impact.  They can issue a FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact) or a CX (Categorical Exclusion). 

In 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)  issued a report regarding BLM’s use of Section 390 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (GAO-09-872 September 16, 2009) that the “BLM’s use of section 390 Categorical Exclusions has frequently been out of compliance with both the law and BLM’s guidance.  First, GAO found several types of violations of the law, including approving more than one oil or gas well under a single decision document, approving projects inconsistent with the law’s criteria, and drilling a new well after time frames had lapsed.  Second, GAO found numerous examples – in 85 percent of the field offices sampled – where officials did not correctly follow guidance, most often by failing to adequately justify the use of a categorical exclusion.”  

This story is being played out over and over again in Nevada and other states. 

Our wild horses are being rounded up to the point of extinction while extractive industries are raping our environment.  It seems that the BLM ignores, and even promotes, the massive “unnecessary and undue degradation” by extractive industries, while vastly exaggerating damage supposedly caused by our wild horses.  A horse only drinks about 15 gallons of water a day, and their hoof prints couldn’t possibly rip up as much land as the thousands of acres being forever ruined by mining and other extractive industries.  

Carrie Dann said “I feel that we only have one earth and we must take care of her, and it’s very important that we do take care of her.  If we don’t take care of her, we as a species will all die, but the earth will still continue to go on.  We must always remember that we are children of the earth, and we always must look after the future generations that aren’t here yet.”



Great Basin Resource Watch: 

Western Shoshone Defense Project:

 Federal Register/Vol. 76, No. 10/Friday, January 14, 2011/Notices