RENO, Nev. — Executives behind the largest maker of cat litter in the world figured they’d found the perfect place for a West Coast mine and processing plant when they discovered premium clay deposits in a high-desert valley north of Reno.
Afterall, Nevada is the Silver State, the mining capital of the Comstock Lode, the third-biggest producer of gold in the world behind South Africa and Australia.
Oil-Dri Corp. executives had every reason to believe the fast-growing northern Nevada county of 300,000 would embrace their new mine — the 100 new jobs and estimated $12 million annual impact on a local casino-based economy that area business leaders are trying desperately to diversify.
Instead, they find themselves accused of “environmental racism” in a running battle with a coalition of conservationists, labor activists and the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, which borders the proposed site about 10 miles north of downtown.
The critics have staged rallies and picketed county meetings, purchased radio ads and even bought shares of Oil-Dri stock, enabling them to attend the company’s annual meeting in Chicago and protest the 300-acre project.
Oil-Dri countered by donating a ton of cat litter to a local animal shelter in an effort to reverse some of the ill will and demonstrate its desire to be a good neighbor.
“We were absolutely stunned at the reaction here,” admits Bob Vetere, Oil-Dri vice president and general counsel. “We’ve never had such opposition. Everybody loves to work for us.”
For Washoe County commissioners, who ultimately could determine the fate of the mine near Reno, it’s a classic struggle between the environment and the economy.
And it comes at a time local businesses are more susceptible than usual to concerns about an economic downturn.
Reno civic leaders and elected officials have been working for years to attract new industry and high-tech firms to ease the area’s heavy reliance on gambling revenues. The emergence of casinos on Indian reservations in neighboring California has underscored the urgency of the transition.
“This state and this community spends large amounts of money annually networking and trying to attract different industry to our area, so we don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot,” Commissioner Joanne Bond said.
On the other hand, the mine has the potential to have a major physical impact on the area, from tapping precious water supplies to increasing truck traffic, dust and noise, she said.
“We are trying to balance that. It’s a tightrope between two poles with a fire pit below,” Bond said.
The Washoe County Planning Commission has scheduled a public hearing Tuesday on a proposed special use permit that would set out county conditions on the project.
Planning commission staff have recommended that the planners deny the permit. The staff concluded in a 95-page report that “while most direct environmental impacts from the proposed use can be properly mitigated, there are still a number of indirect impacts that cumulatively affect the surrounding residential communities.”
Opponents said that conclusion should help doom the project. But company officials said it represents only a staff recommendation, which the full planning commission could overturn.
The company also has indicated it would appeal any unfavorable action by the planning commission to the full county board of commissioners, which has the final say. Likewise, opponents have threatened legal action if necessary.
“Our tribal government will do whatever it takes to stop this mine,” said Arlen Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.
“We’ll continue to fight this to the end, even if it means litigation,” he said. “This wouldn’t be built in an affluent neighborhood’s back yard.”
The county permit is key to the opponents’ efforts because the Bureau of Land Management already has said it has no authority to stop the operation on federal land, based on Oil-Dri’s legitimate claim to the minerals under the 1872 Mining Law.
“Since the BLM has let us down, we’re asserting ourselves to county officials as a last defense against the industrialization of our neighborhoods,” said Ben Felix of Citizens For Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods.
But Vetere is confident Oil-Dri’s plans will withstand any legal challenge.
“The bottom line is, we are in an area where our special use is permitted,” Vetere said. “When you couple that with the rights we have acquired under the 1872 Mining Law so as to be able to remove the minerals from the land, I don’t know that they could do that would stand up in court.”
Oil-Dri wants to build the plant to meet growing West Coast demand for the cat box products it manufacturers for Wal-Mart, Chlorox and others.
“There are 75 million cats in the world. Until they all get toilet trained, there is going to be a market for our product. It is a $1 billion industry,” Vetere said.
Backers say critics are exaggerating the impacts.
“The boundary of the colony is only a few hundred feet from the north area mine, but the distance from housing is more like a mile and a half. So we’re really not mining in anybody’s back yard,” said Jeff Codega, president of a Reno-based planning and design firm that has worked with Oil-Dri on the project.
Dave Howard, public policy director for the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce, says it in economic terms.
“Northern Nevada is suffering like every other community is suffering from recession,” he said. “We see it as jobs, dollars, economic multipliers in the community.”
Ray Bacon, executive director of the Nevada Manufacturers Assocaition, said the products Oil-Dri makes help clean up fuel spills and other hazardous leaks.
“We’ve got environmental groups trying to stop a product that is as environmentally friendly and environmentally useful as there is out there,” Bacon said. “It may not be as glamorous as gold, but it is focused on pollution reduction.”
And it isn’t just any clay.
“The clay you get out of your backyard is worth $2 to $3 a ton. This clay is worth 100 times that because of its capability to absorb,” Vetere said.
Oil-Dri had sales topping $175 million last year and already operates clay mines in Mississippi, Georgia and Illinois. Company officials rented a suite at a Reno casino in October to make their case to local news reporters, complete with a 10-minute videotaped message from the company president as well as several workers at Oil-Dri manufacturing facilities in the South.
One after another, the workers described how well they had been treated and community leaders told of contributions that made school improvements and other civic construction possible in places like Ripley, Miss.
“The more information that gets disseminated and the more people are willing to look at the facts the more they realize we are really not the satanic, evil force that we are being made out to be,” Vetere said.
Melendez and Diana Crutcher-Smith were among tribal members who took Oil-Dri up on an offer to tour its facilities in Mississippi earlier this year.
“The whole town relies almost solely on Oil-Dri. People told me their dad and their granddad worked in the plant and someday their kid would work there too,” Crutcher-Smith said.
Melendez said it reminded him of coal mining country.
“People need jobs. Coal miners will accept black lung disease because they have to feed their families,” Melendez said. “I don’t know exactly what the standard of living is in Ripley, Mississippi, but it looked to me like they needed that plant there, so they are in a different situation.
“Nevada is the fastest growing state in the nation. I think we can be more selective of who we want to target. We’re not like Ripley, Mississippi, and other places where you have to take whatever comes along.”
On the Net:
Reno-Sparks Indian Colony: http://www.rsic.org/