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Reno-Sparks fights kitty litter mine

CHICAGO, Ill. ? Representatives of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony paid a surprise visit to a recent meeting of Oil-Dri Corp. shareholders meeting in Chicago. Their goal was to stop a proposed kitty litter strip mine at the edge of their Nevada community.

The 550 residents of the Hungry Valley community are fighting to prevent Oil-Dri from using an 1872 mining law to get permits to open two open pit mines and a processing plant at the edge of town. Fears of heavy traffic near schools, ground water pollution and air pollution kept the community fighting the proposed mines for more than two and a half years.

Community groups that joined the colony to keep the plant from opening said they don't believe the 1872 mining law was meant to include mining for kitty litter.

In a telephone interview with Indian Country Today, Ben Felix, a Hungry Valley citizen working with the colony, explained concerns of the opposition.

'Six of us came from Reno, Nev., to attend the shareholders' meeting of the Oil-Dri Corp.,' Felix said. 'They are proposing to put a strip mine and manufacturing plant in an already existing residential area. This directly affects the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. They are trying their utmost best to get this processing plant that will run 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 365 days out of the year.

'They are claiming that they will be able to reclaim the existing land back to its pristine nature, but it really doesn't address the issues. Arsenic, mercury, selenium and some other minerals will be leeched into our ground water. The air, dust and pollution that will be caused in the valley will mean breathing very, very fine particulates, finer than chalk dust off a chalkboard, and this is the air our children are going to have to breath for the next hundred years.'

Felix said that although Oil-Dri promised to reclaim the land to its original state after the mining operation closes, to date no desert reclamation has ever been successful.

'So the backfill and dust is really going to end up in the lungs of our children,' Felix said.

If the proposed mine were built in an unpopulated area, Felix said the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and other citizen groups wouldn't fight it, but the close proximity to the community poses so many safety and health hazards for residents, the only thing they can do is continue fighting to stop it.

It doesn't appear Oil-Dri will back off or look at other locations for the mine.

'They claim that this deposit of clay, which they use for kitty litter is the only place left in America that they can mine,' Felix said. 'It makes the question, 'If this (the proposed mine) is exhausted, does that mean the end of kitty litter as we know it?' Are our children going to have to suffer severe asthma and other health problems just to satisfy the pocketbook of one corporation?'

Opponents fear the decline Oil-Dri has seen in profits over the past five quarters will translate to the company leaving a big hole in the ground if its stocks continue to decline. That would leave the community with a big kitty litter hole and environmental woes they would have to resolve themselves. Felix said Oil-Dri is trying to get a partnership going with the Clorox Corp. to push its western plant expansion.

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'This is to beef up their shares.'

So far Oil-Dri is ahead in the battle. It has received reclamation and air permits.

'At the stockholders' meeting this morning, the CEO said he is 100 percent assured they will receive the permits and groundbreaking will happen sometime in the fall of 2002,' Felix said.

'Irregardless of our fight, it appears that they have an inside track and will have the permits issued. Because of our tactics they were forced to provide an environmental impact statement which they didn't think was necessary. We have stalled them for over two and a half years. They have spent over $2 million and have committed another $10 (million). All in all, trying to get this through is going to cost them over $12 million, and their shares have already dropped 3 percent. It doesn't make sense to us.'

It doesn't make sense to Felix and others that Oil-Dri is committed to putting a plant less than a mile from Hungry Valley. '? In an area where you can see 35 miles in any direction on the horizon, a processing plant that is less than a mile away from our backyards is something that is really going to stand out.'

Felix is part of a broad-based coalition that doesn't want to see the valley near Reno turned into the bowl they believe would be created if the mine is allowed to open.

Felix and his neighbors say the desert area near Hungry Valley is a place of beauty and the thought of seeing it torn up angers him. 'Nevada seems to be a wasteland to these folks.'

All the opposition can see is the detrimental effects of strip mining on the community. There doesn't even appear to be an economic boost if the mine does open.

'They are trying to use an economic wedge to get in, but they are only promising 100 jobs, if that,' Felix said.

That handful of jobs won't balance out the negative impact of the mine and processing plant on the community, he said.

'As a matter of fact we will also have trucks in and out of a two-lane highway that will be traveling past at least two elementary schools and two high schools. And they are saying that they see no detrimental impact, having 50 trucks a day in and out of this processing plant and they don't see a problem. It just doesn't make sense.'

Representatives from Oil-Dri couldn't be reached for comment.