RENO, Nev. — Facing fierce opposition from conservationists and tribal leaders on multiple fronts, Nevada's largest mining company has suspended its proposed expansion of what would become one of the biggest gold mines in the world.
Lawyers for the U.S. government and one of the groups seeking endangered species protection for a rare fish near the mine also indicated this week they are trying to settle a lawsuit challenging the Fish and Wildlife Service's failure to rule on a listing petition filed in 2014.
Environmentalists were pleasantly surprised when Nevada Gold Mines put the brakes on the expansion plans this week at the Long Canyon Mine along Interstate 80, about 30 miles from the Utah line. They say the expansion could prove catastrophic to wildlife, cultural resources and nearby high-desert springs.
"The imperiled fish, mule deer and greater sage grouse that rely on these springs can breathe a sigh of relief," said Scott Lake, Nevada legal advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. "The water that's flowed for centuries will keep flowing, for now. But this is only a temporary reprieve."
Nevada Gold Mines, a joint venture Newmont and Barrick Goldstrike formed last summer, notified the Bureau of Land Management July 27 it wanted to pause the review process.
It said it wants to "complete additional studies and planning to reduce the impacts of the project specifically by improving the dewatering and water infiltration plans and make any necessary changes to the proposed plan amendment."
Five environmental groups joined a tribe and a local water-rights holder in filing state administrative protests in April of the mine's water rights application as part of its plan to dig below the water table and pump water out of nearby wells to keep the open pit dry.
Nevada Gold Mines explained in an email to The Associated Press that the venture "created opportunity to challenge assumptions and apply new perspectives to projects including evaluation against the company's environmental and sustainability values."
"This analysis resulted in the decision to delay the permitting process to re-evaluate aspects of the project and engage in additional studies and designs to reduce the expected impacts," it said.
Great Basin Resource Watch Director John Hadder said mine officials notified them of their intentions last week.
"They made it sound like it was a significant re-evaluation," Hadder told the AP. "It's unusual for a company this big and that's as far along as they are in this project to step back."
The bureau had planned to issue a decision on the expansion in September 2021. The company hasn't indicated "how long this pause might last," agency spokesman Chris Rose said.
The move comes as a U.S. judge in Reno approved a joint request last week from lawyers for the Justice Department and Center for Biological Diversity to extend a deadline until Sept. 10 for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to respond to the lawsuit over the proposed listing of the relict dace, the fish within a mile of the mine.
Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics petitioned for listing in 2014. The wildlife service determined in 2015 it had enough information to warrant a full-year review of its status to determine whether federal protection was needed, but it still hasn't acted. The center filed the lawsuit in June.
The parties "have recently conferred in regard to a possible negotiated resolution of this matter and agree that additional time is needed to in an attempt to resolve the claims," the lawyers told the judge last week.
Hadder isn't sure if Nevada Gold Mines has any ulterior motives for suspending the project.
"I'd certainly like to think they really do want to be sensitive to the environmental and cultural values of the spring area," Hadder said. "The effects of their pumping is going to last over 100 years under their current analysis. So, we're kind of scratching our heads a little bit about how they are going to change their dewatering scheme in a way that's satisfactory."