One Year and 37 Boreholes Later...

By Jennifer Allen
From Fall/Winter 1997 Newsletter


On a crisp, but clear October morning, a small gathering of Western Shoshone and staff of the WSDP proceeded up to one of the hot springs in Crescent Valley. For the past year and half, this spring has been at the center of unfolding conflict between Western Shoshone, Oro Nevada Mining Company, and the Bureau of Land Management. The 25 people formed a circle around the spring's source; prayers and tobacco were offered to the spirits who inhabit the area. In turn, the people asked for strength and clarity in their efforts to protect the spring and the surrounding area from increasing mineral developments.

The first sign of concern arose in March 1996 when Oro Nevada Mining Company, the subsidiary of Canada's Oro Nevada Resources, began lining Crescent Valley with mining claim stakes. The Company then proceeded to purchase the 50,000 acre Dean Ranch, thereby controlling nearly every-other square mile in the valley. Yet, their efforts were not accomplished without scrutiny and protest.

Beginning in September, 1996, a series of letter-writing campaigns were launched pressuring the gold mining company and the BLM to respect Western Shoshone requests that particular areas around Crescent Valley not be= disturbed. Western Shoshone also requested to meet with the Nevada State BLM Director; these request, however, were ignored. In fact, in letters from then-State Director, Ann Morgan, the BLM refers to the hot springs as an area "claimed to be sacred." To squelch this opposition, Oro Nevada representatives approached the Dann family, offering to buy their home for a meager $183 per acre.

Western Shoshone Met with Locked Doors

Frustrated with unanswered letters and attempts at discussion, a protest was held at Oro Nevada's office in Reno, Nevada on April 30, 1997. Approximately 30 people, including Western Shoshone, Paiute, Pit River and non-indigenous supporters held signs on the sidewalk adjacent to a busy Reno street. The protest coincided with the Western Shoshone National Council serving notice to Oro Nevada that an injunction had been filed against the company and the BLM in the US District Court of Nevada. Western Shoshone Marshall Sam Marsh and Council staff person, Jack Orr were met with locked doors at Oro's office. Later, a visibly irritated Oro Nevada President Bob Jones, agreed to meet in his office complex parking lot, where he accepted and signed the court documents. (see article on Injunction)

BLM & Selective Hearing

The BLM's regulations that govern hardrock mining are the 43 CFR 3809's. These regulations specify that the BLM is to prevent "any undue or unnecessary degradation." Additionally, these rules state that any disturbance less than 5 acres is considered a "Notice -Level" activity and does not require any kind of permitting. All a mining company is required to submit to the BLM is a small "Notice of Intent" report which outlines their drill and reclamation plans. When more than 5 acres are disturbed from mining activities, the BLM and the mining company are supposed to compile a "Plan of Operations," (POO) a more extensive analysis of the mining activities.

While the protest was happening in Reno, Oro Nevada was busy carving a road in section 10 (the 1 square-mile containing the hot spring). The first 900' road was carved during the protest, the second 3,000' road was cut into the hill north of the spring on May 1st. These roads, in combination with the past, current and proposed drill sites and associated roads created more than 5 acres of disturbance in the area north and east of the hot springs. Thus it would seem that the BLM would be required to compile a POO. When questioned, however, the BLM pulled out their "Interim Revegetation Standards." Ostensibly, these standards are to determine successful revegetation. Yet, at the end of the memorandum, it states that Notice-level activities will now allow up to 10 acres of total surface disturbance as long as no more than 5 acres are "unreclaimed" at any point during exploration. Once again, the BLM will twist and bend to accommodate the mineral industry.

But even worse than avoiding the POO, the BLM is also avoiding talking with the Western Shoshone about their concerns for cultural sites. To date, five resolutions from four different Western Shoshone Tribal Councils have been passed - in Ely, Duckwater, Yomba and Timbisha. Several Western Shoshone individuals have also written letters to the BLM expressing their concerns about the potential for cultural and spiritual sites being disturbed by Oro Nevada's drilling. Through a twisting of regulations, the BLM claims that they are not required to consult with Native Americans unless a POO is submitted. Yet, above and beyond the official Native American Consultations required by NEPA, there are a number of other laws that apply which are independent of POOs and NEPA. Some of these include, the National Register of Historic Places, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and President Clinton's Executive Order 13007 on Sacred Sites. Instead of following the laws, the BLM ties their own hands behind their backs, ignoring Western Shoshone concerns.

Oro Nevada's door step

In June, 1997, the Defense Project learned that Oro Nevada Resources' first annual shareholders meeting in Toronto, Canada was scheduled for June 24th. We couldn't pass up this opportunity to hold Oro accountable for its disrespect of Western Shoshone land rights and to alert the Canadian public of the Canadian company's actions on Western Shoshone land.

After two weeks of quick preparations, a group of seven people, including Raymond Yowell, Chief of the Western Shoshone National Council, Carrie Dann, her nephew Russell Dann and four WSDP staff arrived in Toronto, Canada on June 22nd. Before the dozen corporate officials and management, WSDP staff, Christopher Sewall and Western Shoshone representative, Russell Dann asked whether Oro Nevada was going to respect the wishes of the Western Shoshone not to disturb cultural and spiritual sites in Crescent Valley. Michael Farrugia, Oro CEO, responded with Oro's usual reply: "We are complying with all local, state and federal regulation." Oro Nevada was then reminded that despite compliance with regulations, their treatment of Western Shoshone people and lands is still unethical and immoral. This was backed up by the presentation to Mr. Farrugia of hundreds of petitions from Western Shoshone supporters in Italy.

Outside the Toronto Board of Trade Building, 50 people gathered in solidarity with the Western Shoshone Nation. Banners and placards demanding that Oro stop their destructive search for gold, drew public attention to Oro Nevada's crimes on Western Shoshone land. Raymond Yowell and Carrie Dann addressed the protesters, describing the impacts of Oro and other gold mining operations and thanking them for taking this stand with the Western Shoshone.

The Canadian media was on hand to report the protest. Interviews were broadcast on several radio programs in Toronto. An article in the national Canadian paper, "The Globe and Mail" concluded by noting that Oro's stock fell $0.10 that day.

Another ceremonial site threatened 

At the shareholders' meeting, Oro distributed their exploration update. Enclosed was a map indicating their plans not only to drill near the hot spring, but also in Section 4. One drill target appeared in the same location as the WSDP's cultural and spiritual encampment, created by the Western Shoshone National Council. This encampment holds ceremonial areas that continue to be used; it is also the site of the annual Western Shoshone Spring Gathering, which brings together Western Shoshone and their supporters for celebration and prayer.

During the week of July 14-18, Western Shoshone individuals, organizations, and tribal governments, as well as supporting individuals, flooded the offices of the local and state BLM, asking them not to approve Oro's Notice, emphasizing that no Western Shoshone person has been contacted regarding this sacred site and any drilling activity would desecrate the area. Despite these flagrant violations, the local BLM maintains that they are complying with the law and that it is not within their authority to deny Oro their right to conduct exploratory drilling. Nonetheless, due to public pressure from the letters, phone calls and faxes, Oro has not yet attempted to drill in Section 4.

Changing Water Into Gold

Meanwhile, under the table, Oro Nevada has been attempting to conduct a land swap with the Bureau of Land Management. This plan, finally obtained by the WSDP through a Freedom of Information Act Request, was for 8,000 acres of Oro's private property in the mountains, in exchange for 22,000 acres of Western Shoshone land (so-called public lands) in the valley. The lands desired by Oro Nevada span nearly the entire valley along the base of the Cortez Mountains. This includes the majority of the Dann family's traditional lands as well as many cultural sites such as the ceremonial areas in Section 4 and the hot spring in Section 10. If this land was acquired by Oro Nevada, even the meager procedures of the BLM would be exempt from the block of private land. The Dann family would be effectively cut-off by the mining company from the lands that have sustained their family for generations.

Violations and Retractions

On August 28, Oro's drill rig hit a geyser which sprayed hot water 60 feet high into the air. It took Oro over 24 hours to handle the situation, finally having to resort to bringing in costly equipment from Salt Lake City, Utah, over 250 miles away. During this large water flow, owners of property with a hot spring miles down the valley noted that their flow was reduced for that same period.

Allowing water to flow after drilling has stopped is a violation of Nevada State law (NRS 534.410). Other violations have include water contaminated with hydraulic fluids at one of their drilling sites. The Nevada Department of Environmental Protection (NDEP) told the WSDP that they were going to issue Oro a Finding of Violation, only to retract it after the company pulled some strings and agreed to voluntarily clean up the spill. When we questioned why the NDEP did not issue a Violation, they responded, "That's just not the way we do business." The NDEP had previously stated violations like Oro's happen all the time, but no one ever reports them. Apparently gold mining companies remain above the law, and these violations and contamination will continue to occur if laws are not enforced.

Falling Prices, Rising Hopes

The day after the ceremony, October 26, Oro Nevada's drill rig slowly pulled itself down from the base of the mountains and out of Crescent Valley. Drilling had begun in Section 10 on September 15th; seven drill holes were planned. Yet when the drilling rig left, only three holes were completed. The "problem," as the public relations man explained to the Dann sisters, was that the drill rig kept hitting water, resulting in costly consequences for the company.

One year and thirty-seven drill holes later, Oro Nevada was forced to pull all their equipment out of the valley. With increasing drilling costs, water contamination clean-up costs and plummeting stock prices, coupled with the falling price of gold, Oro Nevada has gone back to the drawing board. While all is quiet in Crescent Valley, a potential storm awaits: Oro Nevada is now looking for a joint venture partner. (see Oro Nevada Action Alert).

But Gold prices are at the lowest they've been for over two decades, making investment in the industry shaky. Countries from around the world are considering selling their gold holdings, dropping gold prices even further. On December 4th, gold was listed at $292 an ounce, compared to the 1996 December price of $390. Oro's stock has also dropped comparatively, in December 1996 stock was listed at $3.20 a share - as of Dec. 4, 1997, Oro shares fell to $0.22.

While this downward trend seems promising, the deflated prices actually encourage consolidation within the mining industry. The smaller companies must enter into a joint venture or be bought out by the ever-growing transnational companies. This is a critical time to let Oro's possible partners know that there is more than appears at the surface with Oro Nevada. Low prices are not worth the costs.

 Background on Western Shoshone Issues