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Does old mine law cover cat litter?

Some say pit would hurt nearby school

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RENO, Nev. — The politically charged battle over U.S. mining regulations is playing itself out at a claim in Hungry Valley, on the edge of this northern Nevada city. But the claim isn't for gold or silver or other precious metal.

It's for cat litter — albeit some of the finest cat litter known to grace a box.

Local residents are fighting Oil-Dri Corp.'s plans for an open-pit clay mine and processing plant. They don't want the dust, the noise or the huge trucks rolling past their new school. Neighboring tribes are also opposed, fearing harm to their ancestors' graves.

Nevertheless, those foes might be powerless to stop it because of the General Mining Law of 1872, passed to encourage development on the Western frontier.

"Do you really think Ulysses S. Grant thought he was including kitty litter when he signed this into law?" asked Tom Myers, a hydrologist and head of the Great Basin Mine Watch, an environmental group.

The clay mine is planned on about 300 acres of federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The area, about 10 miles from downtown Reno, is bordered by a fast-growing residential area.

Oil-Dri is the world's largest maker of cat litter. The Chicago-based company owns the Cat's Pride brand, and it supplies litter sold under other names. It also sells clay used for fuel filtration, agriculture and to absorb grease and oil at industrial plants.

"We really do want to be a good neighbor," said Craig Paisley, manager of Oil-Dri's Reno plant, which is expected to employ up to 100 workers. "We have no intention of coming in and trying to alienate people."

The Reno site is attractive for the dry, high-quality clay found beneath the desert sagebrush, where less than 7 inches of rain falls annually. Quality in this case means absorbency, density and hardness.

"The mineral's only available in certain parts of the country," said Jayne Weiske, product manager of Oil-Dri's consumer division. "You'll find that around the country most plants — ours and our competitors' — are located fairly close together."

Federal officials aren't taking sides, but they suggest it would be difficult to halt the mine even if they wanted to.

"BLM's authority . . . is not to decide if mining should be allowed, but to regulate how activities already authorized by the General Mining Law of 1872 are to be conducted," a recent draft environmental impact statement said.

That point is not lost on conservationists, who have been trying for decades to rewrite the law, which makes "uncommon, locatable" minerals on federal lands generally available to miners.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt revised regulations to give the government new authority to deny permits if mining would cause "substantial irreparable harm" to significant resources of the public lands. But Babbitt's successor, Gale Norton, is moving to roll back some of Babbitt's changes at the urging of the mining industry.

Environmentalists say the government's lack of authority to reject a mine site, even when it borders a residential area, is precisely why the 1872 law should be overhauled.

"It is one thing to balance a bar of gold or some palladium, or maybe even some platinum versus the impact on a nearby community," said Stephen D'Esposito, president of the Mineral Policy Center in Washington. "It's another thing to do it for kitty litter."

Not that cat litter doesn't have its value. The Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada estimates Oil-Dri's project would generate $100 million over five years for the local economy.

Company officials say the Reno project won't disrupt sacred tribal sites and said they would make changes the BLM recommended to reduce dust and route traffic away from the school.

Tom Leshendok, BLM's deputy state director of minerals in Nevada, said the agency still could block the mine if it was found to violate the Endangered Species Act — there are no protected species in the area — or violate other laws protecting Native American artifacts. A public comment period runs through July 10.

But Bill Whitney, a planner for Washoe County, said the decision was made in May 2000 when the BLM established that the very fine clay qualified under the 1872 law as a "locatable mineral."

"They have valid existing claims, so they have a right to go ahead and mine," Whitney said. "All the BLM can say is, 'You have to do this and this and this to mitigate it.'"