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Court orders more study of US mine exploration

world Updated: Jun 24, 2010 13:16 IST

The word's largest gold producer intends to continue operations at a Nevada mine while U.S. regulators respond to a new appeals court order to better assess potential impacts of an exploration plan opposed by tribes and conservationists.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Bureau of Land Management to reassess the environmental impacts and expand its analysis of the cumulative effects of the exploration project that Toronto-based Barrick Gold of North America plans across nearly 48 square miles (124 sq. kilometers) of northeast Nevada's Lander County.

The latest ruling by the appeals panel in San Francisco comes six years after the BLM approved Barrick Cortez's plan at the Cortez Hills mine.

The Te-Moak Tribe, Western Shoshone Defense Project and Great Basin Resource Watch appealed the decision, citing potential harm to groundwater as well as spiritual sites the tribes consider sacred. The 9th Circuit ruled last week BLM failed to adequately consider cumulative impacts on cultural resources and Native American religious concerns.

It said the agency provided only a "vague discussion" of potential cumulative harm to water quality in its amended environmental assessment required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

That document "devotes a scant three sentences to cumulative impacts to water resources, stating only that `impacts to water resources may include increased sedimentation and potential for erosion,"' Judge Richard A. Paez wrote in the opinion for a three-judge appellate panel.

The judge said the cursory review came despite earlier agency analysis that found the project "could potentially result in direct impacts to groundwater resources where groundwater is encountered in the drill holes."

Lou Schack, spokesman for Barrick Gold of North America, said mining will continue at Cortez Hills while the BLM supplements the 2-year-old study.

The latest decision is over an amended environmental assessment for exploration in the Cortez Hills, Pediment and Horse Canyon areas.

John Hadder, executive director of the Great Basin Resource Watch, said the ruling shows "there clearly needs to be more complete analysis up front."

Gerald Smith, manager of the BLM's Battle Mountain District, said the amended document in question looked at more than 30,000 acres (12,000 hectares) in the Battle Mountain and Elko BLM districts. He said a thorough analysis spelled out a "great deal of criteria" for Cortez to follow for exploration.