A NEPA Categorical Exclusion

by Lynn Boulton

Still in effect today, the 1872 General Mining Act makes it very difficult for the federal govern-ment to deny proposals for hard rock mining. The Act and rising gold prices reaching a height of $2,038/oz on August 5, 2020, has stimulated gold exploration in California and Nevada. Over the past ten years, the Humboldt-Toiyabe Forest Service has approved fifty-seven gold exploration drilling projects as categorical exemptions throughout Nevada. The only criterion was that they were one-year projects; not how many drill pads or “temporary roads” were involved or how special the location is. Drilling projects leave scars on the landscape and impact wildlife, local water resources, and cultural resources.
The Eastern Sierra has had five exploratory drilling projects proposed in recent years: Bald Peak CA and NV (now withdrawn), Conglomerate Mesa, Spring Peak, and Long Valley. Spring Peak and Long Valley were approved as NEPA categorical exclusions; no environmental or public review step. I happen to receive Notices of Intent on some of these projects. While I wasn’t able to respond to the Spring Peak project in time, I was able to for the Long Valley pro-ject. Despite over 1,300 public comments, the Long Valley Exploratory Drilling project was ap-proved on September 27.
Drilling will impact the declining Bi-state Sage Grouse that use the area in and around the project site. The groundwater in the project area is connected to Hot Creek and Little Hot Creek that bookend the project site. Drilling into the geothermal aquifer in a highly fractured area could impact the creeks, yet there is no monitoring plan. CBD, Sierra Club, Western Watersheds Project, and FOI filed a NEPA complaint against the Inyo National Forest for approving the Long Valley Exploratory Drilling Project as a categorical exclusion.
The 1872 mining law needs to be changed. If you hold a mineral claim, you have the right to dig it up. The 1872 mining law trumps all other laws protecting public lands. One amendment to the law should be a requirement of public noticing and an environmental review for all exploratory drilling projects so the public can become aware of them and can comment on them.
Lynn Boulton is Chair of the Range of Light Group within the Sierra Club Toiyabe Chapter.