FORT YUMA, Calif. -- Attorneys for the Department of Interior have asked Interior Secretary Gale Norton to rescind rules that prevented a Nevada-based company from receiving a permit for an open pit, cyanide heap-leach gold mine near the Fort Yuma Indian reservation.
At issue is an 880-foot-deep, one-mile-wide open-pit gold leaching operation originally proposed by Reno, Nev.-based Glamis Gold Ltd in 1994. The mine was denied a permit by the Clinton administration last year and now it is up to Secretary Norton to decide whether to issue a new permit.
The Quechans, who reside on the reservation, are protesting the move. They say the mining operation would severely impact some of their sacred cultural and historical sites and are questioning the legality of any such action taken by the Interior Department to rescind past protections.
Word was leaked last week that the Bush administration was prepared to issue new federal guidelines on mining designed to reverse most of the sweeping legal opinions made by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in the final months of the Clinton administration.
Courtney Ann Coyle, an attorney for Quechan, said the problem is two-fold. She said there are problems with the process in which Secretary Norton came out with the new mining regulations and that the specific request of the Interior attorneys to rescind the ban on the Glamis project is illegal.
"Basically they're trying to turn back the clock on mining issues. The thing that really bothers me here is that I found out about this in a newspaper story," Coyle said. "The administration didn't even contact the tribe. I think this speaks volumes about how the Bush administration is going to conduct government to government relations."
Coyle said the "undue impairment standard" in the United States Code, implemented by congressional action 20 years ago, is grounds enough for preventing the Glamis project. The undue impairment standard prevents extractive mining projects that would provide irreparable harm to the local communities. This standard is also one of the rollbacks in Norton's new guidelines.
"An open pit mine of this size cannot be back filled. It will present a major impact to the local communities," Coyle said.
Furthermore, Coyle said Norton is trying to push through the new guidelines without any kind of public comment and added she wonders whether it is lawful to repeal decisions made by the former administration.
Interior spokesman John Wright said it was Babbitt who acted without public consent by sneaking through these new rules in the last days of the Clinton administration and that Secretary Norton is just trying to put the proper rules back in place.
In regard to the Glamis project, Wright said nothing has been decided as of yet. He said the decision is only a recommendation and that Norton has not made a final decision as to when the permitting process would take place.
"There is no timeline yet. We just have to wait and see when this (the Glamis mine permit) would be accomplished."
Dave Hyatt, vice president for Glamis' investor relations, said his company has not yet decided if it will actually go through with the operation. He said the company first applied for a mining permit in 1994 and had dropped all plans for the operation after Babbitt's solicitor John Leshy decided last January to not allow the operation.
Hyatt did not know if the operation is still profitable since the price of gold has declined. An electric shovel originally bought for the operation had to be sold and would be more expensive to re-purchase now. However, he did say Glamis will at least re-apply for a mining permit.
Hyatt said his company has worked with the tribe and had changed the plan of operation several times at Quechan's request to avoid sacred areas. However, Hyatt said that compared to other types of industrial operations, the mining effort would be of far less impact to Quechan sacred areas.
"Half of southwestern California is sacred to them. The railroads and pipelines already cut through their spiritual trails," Hyatt said.
Tribal sources said Hyatt's assessment is a gross oversimplification of their sacred grounds. The proposed gold mine would be in an area known as Indian Pass. This is part of a network of points known as the "spirit trail" which ultimately links two mountains in the Southern California Desert, Avikwaame in the north and Avikwala or Pilot's Knob in the south.
Quechans liken this to the Roman Catholic stations-of-the-cross and say the Indian Pass area is one of the sacred points in between where young tribal members are trained in tribal traditions.
Coyle said Glamis representatives told her there are dozens of other such places that look like Indian Pass and have suggested that the tribe find a suitable substitute.
To many tribal members this is an issue of religious freedom and some have likened the mining operation to destruction of an ancient church and feel that by allowing the mine, the Bush administration is presenting an affront to their religious practices.
"President Bush has often spoken about his goal of upholding religious freedom for all Americans. This must include American Indians," said tribal member and consultant Lorey Cachora.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., entered the fray and wrote a stern warning to Norton not to rescind the Glamis decision. In the Oct. 23 letter to Norton, obtained by Indian Country Today, Boxer stated "it is hard to conceive" of the legal interpretations of allowing the Glamis project.
"The destruction of this sacred area would violate Interior's obligations to protect the interests of federally recognized Native American tribes."
For now, the tribe is weighing its options and waiting for final word from Norton. Coyle said the tribe may decide to take legal action and is in the process of making a decision.