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Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Nevada

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The state Environmental Commission rejected an appeal by conservationists and tribal officials who wanted to stop a mine from dumping waste water with cyanide and other toxins into the northern Nevada desert. The commission said there are enough safeguards to keep drainage from the former Wind Mountain Mine north of Reno from posing a health or environmental threat. Critics, including the Great Basin Mine Watch and the tribe, argued contamination would degrade groundwater near the old cyanide leach heap. Commissioners said even if contaminants reached groundwater supplies, monitoring wells in the area would alert regulators, who could order the mining company to clean it up before real damage is done. The mine, now owned by Kinross Gold USA with regional headquarters in Salt Lake City, has been closed for eight years. From 1989-92, the mine in the San Emidio Desert south of Empire, extracted gold and silver by sprinkling cyanide over the heaps of low-grade ore in a mining and milling area of about 820 acres. The Bureau of Land Management and the state agreed groundwater is so deep - at least 600 feet - there's little risk of the toxic materials reaching it. Critics charge the state's March permit sets a bad precedent by allowing the mine to drain its heap below ground.

Rising waters of Pyramid Lake threaten to lap up the tribe's campground, marina, a fisheries building and fish-rearing ponds at Sutcliffe. While engineers scramble for a plan to stabilize the shoreline and protect sewer and water lines, Tribal Chairman Norman Harry is thrilled. "I hope the lake keeps coming up at the rate it is. These are very, very small issues." Pyramid Lake is on the rebound, thanks to wet winters in the early 1980s and late 1990s and water conservation in the Newlands Reclamation Project and Reno and Sparks. If it rises another 36.6 feet, the lake will top the spillway at Marble Bluff Dam. The federal government built the dam three miles up from Pyramid Lake in 1975 to stop the Truckee from downcutting to meet the lake's new, lower elevation. Unchecked, this downcutting could have engulfed the little town of Nixon. While the dam saved Nixon, it became a major barrier to Pyramid Lake's endangered cui-ui fish which move up the Truckee in the spring to spawn. To get past the dam, the fish must ride a mechanical lock system. "Getting the water above the dam would be the ideal situation because it would address the issue of fish passage," Harry said.