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By RUDY YNIGUEZ

January 23, 2001|Staff Writer

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt will announce a record of decision today regarding a gold mine in the Indian Pass area of the county.

The so-called record of decision is expected to result in the rejection of the $14 million to-date project on grounds that the impacts to the environment and cultural resources of the Quechan Nation are too much to allow the mine to move forward.

A U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokesman in Sacramento said Babbitt's decision will not actually be known until he signs the document. However, Babbitt is scheduled to be accompanied at the Washington signing by others known to oppose the project, including Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; president of the Quechan Nation Mike Jackson and the president of the Washington, D.C.-based Mineral Policy Center.

The latter was circulating electronic mail two weeks ago notifying its supporters about the decision to reject the mine but urging supporters to avoid making the information public due to fears that locals might show up and protest Babbitt's decision in the Imperial Valley.

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"We don't need to give the opposition an opportunity to organize a protest at the site," the Jan. 5 communiqué reads. "A protest could come in the form of miners or anyone else opposed to Babbitt's policies generally. It would be great to have a headline about the victory at Indian Pass and the larger precedence on mining generally. We don't want to see a headline that says, ‘County divided on proposed mine' or ‘Babbitt oppresses local desire for new jobs.'"

The e-mail then goes on to urge MPC supporters to not communicate Babbitt's visit to Indian Pass to the media.

Separately, a local BLM spokesman had previously said Babbitt's office in Washington, D.C., likely would not confirm a visit to the Valley in order to minimize the number of people who might show up to protest the mine's rejection. The person spoke on condition of anonymity.

The rejection of the proposed gold mine is expected to be a test case of newly found authority on the part of BLM to reject hard-rock mining on public lands. That newly found authority comes in the form of a legal opinion by the Department of the Interior Solicitor John Leshy. The opinion was issued early last year and concludes BLM may reject projects deemed to cause undue impairment or undue degradation to an area intended for mining.

The legal opinion is considered a "reinterpretation" of BLM's responsibilities under the 1980 California Desert Conservation Area plan. The opinion is thought by BLM to state that BLM has had the authority all along to reject such mining proposals even though the final environmental impact report/environmental impact statement leaves open the possibility of future gold-mining operations in the same area.

"Whether the BLM may deny the Glamis plan approval … depends upon the particular facts, including the significance of the resources to be protected," the opinion states. "The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation has found that mitigation measures proposed by the company do not prevent destruction of the area's important cultural, historic and scientific values."

Mining officials have said the action taken by Interior is a deliberate circumvention of the desires of Congress stated in the 1872 Mining Act and that the rejection of the mine will lead to court.

Though BLM chose the no-action alternative as its preference in the final environmental document, its preferred alternative under the draft environmental document was to allow the mine. The Leshy opinion resulted in BLM's rejection of the mine.

In addition to rejecting the mine for development, BLM closed off 9,360.74 acres in the Indian Pass area to certain mining activities. The site is 45 miles northeast of El Centro and 20 miles northwest of Yuma, northeast of Ogilby Road along Indian Pass Road.

Babbitt was originally to sign the record of decision in the Indian Pass area Tuesday but canceled the visit.

Staff Writer Rudy Yniguez can be reached at 337-3440.

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