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Interior Dept. Revives Plan for Mine on California Indian Site

September 29, 2002|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Defying the Senate and the California Legislature, the Interior Department has removed a key hurdle for development of the proposed open-pit Glamis gold mine in an isolated, rocky section of desert in eastern Imperial County.

The action came just days after the Senate adopted an amendment written by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that attempted to thwart the mine by prohibiting the use of federal funds to examine the mine's potential or prepare a permit for it.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt tried to kill the project in January 2001, arguing that it would irreparably damage cultural and religious sites sacred to the Quechan Indian Tribe.

But Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton gave the project new life, and the department ruled Friday that claims to develop the mine are valid. The decision was made after mineral experts determined that economic conditions and the site's ore stores will support a profitable mine.

Members of the Quechan Tribe were angered that the agency announced the finding without consulting them.

"It's a complete slap in the face to the tribe, the California Legislature and the U.S. Senate," said Courtney Coyle, an attorney for the tribe.

"The destruction of this sacred area would violate the Interior Department's obligations to protect the interests of federally recognized Native American tribes, with tragic consequences," Boxer said Friday.

While the ruling moves Reno-based Glamis Gold Ltd. one step closer to excavating a 1,571-acre mine on Bureau of Land Management property about 45 miles northeast of El Centro, Calif., it does not authorize it to begin production.

The next step is a three-month review of a study prepared under Babbitt's tenure of the likely environmental effects of the project. The agency then decides whether to approve or reject the mine or to seek more information on its environmental impact.

Norton revived the Glamis project last year after her chief lawyer ruled that the Clinton administration had misinterpreted the law in rejecting the mine. Friday's ruling was the first major action toward reconsidering the proposal.

Boxer had attempted to prevent the Bush administration from going forward on Glamis, which is unpopular with the tribe and other area residents, by offering an amendment to the Interior Department spending bill. Her amendment was approved by voice vote last week with the support of Senate Republicans. But it is unclear whether the House would endorse her amendment.

The California Assembly recently passed a bill aimed at protecting sites that are valuable to Indian tribes from mining and other damaging activities.

Glamis said the agency's finding is important because it will back up its effort to be compensated if the state or the federal government rejects the mine.

"What this decision of the BLM does is confirm that we have a compensable interest," said Chuck Jeannes, a senior vice president of the company, on Friday.

Boxer criticized the Bush administration for giving the mining company such a valuable document and said its action was the latest of several to favor the mining industry at the expense of environmental and cultural treasures.

She noted that Norton and several other top Interior officials have worked extensively for mining interests in private business.

"This mine would rip the heart out of the tribe's religious center," Boxer said. "There can be no justification for this decision."

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