Mining executive Lutz Klingmann says he might have made special accommodations if the environmentalists had spoken up sooner about endangered snails. But at this point, he wasn't about to just walk away from Soledad Mountain.
His company had spent nearly 30 years preparing to mine gold and silver at the butte outside Mojave. It had consolidated about 100 mining claims, completed two environmental reviews and, in only the last seven months, spent $7 million on construction.
Then on Jan. 31, without warning, the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity filed for an emergency endangered species listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. CBD said the mining project had to be stopped because it threatened about 40 percent of the entire habitat available to Helminthoglypta greggi , the Mohave shoulderband snail.
Klingmann's British Columbia-based Golden Queen Mining Co. Ltd. quickly engaged a team of biologists and lawyers to address CBD's claims. After sending its own letter to Fish and Wildlife, the company prevailed April 4 as the agency concluded there was "no imminent threat" to the species. Federal officials acknowledged they lacked funding to perform a full review.
But the battle for Soledad Mountain -- with an estimated 160 to 200 jobs and $27 million in county tax revenues in the balance -- may not be over. CBD, a 675,000-member nonprofit known for its large and tenacious legal team, says it is weighing options regarding the snail, and that it may press an earlier claim that the area is home to Corynorhinus townsendii , the possibly endangered Townsend's big-eared bat.
"More than likely," CBD Endangered Species Director Noah Greenwald said, "we think there's a need for additional environmental analysis."
If there is, don't count on Golden Queen's willing cooperation.
"If CBD had approached us (before the federal filing) ... I think we, as a company, knowing how we function and the work we've done on site, might have jumped at the chance to do something proactive," Klingmann said. Instead, "we are moving forward exactly as we had planned."
The Kern County Board of Supervisors contends CBD was trying to obstruct a lawful activity. It stepped in May 13 by sending letters to the Fish and Wildlife Service and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield. Both letters called the CBD's petition "an abuse" of the federal Endangered Species Act and supported the mine proposal.
At that board meeting, county Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt questioned CBD's claim that a unique snail species exists near Mojave.
"There is a Mohave shoulderband snail, however, it occurs in Victorville and it's never occurred in ... Kern County, that we know of."
Golden Queen, a publicly traded company based in West Vancouver, expects to spend $141 million producing at least 31 tons of gold and 375 tons of silver over 15 years starting next spring. At current prices, that amount of precious metals would be worth about $1.5 billion.
While it works to secure financing, the company's plan is to crush ore clusters gathered from an open pit mine at the mountain, then use a cyanide solution to filter out gold and silver. The project would also supply aggregate rock for regional infrastructure projects, and after 15 years, the mountain would be rehabilitated to make it look as it did before the mine's construction.
Golden Queen first won approval of the project in 1997, but it opted not to proceed because of low gold prices. California regulations changed by the time the company decided to move forward, and so the proposal had to undergo a second environmental review that was approved in 2010.
CBD did not participate in either review; in fact, the county says no environmental group ever submitted comments about the project's environmental analysis. But the Arizona group told federal wildlife officials in its January emergency petition that the Mohave shoulderband, a light-brown mollusk half an inch long with a total range of less than eight miles, had been documented at Soledad Mountain as early as 1931.
The petition said the snail provides soil nutrients and is an important source of food and calcium for other animals. Disruption from mining at the site may cause the snail to become extinct, it said.
"Unfortunately, the snail -- no one knew about the snail," Greenwald said.
Golden Queen responded March 31 with a blistering critique of the CBD's petition, calling it a "tardy and desperate attempt to stymie a project" that has undergone decades of review by various federal, state and local agencies. It faulted the petition's science, information sources and conclusions.
The Fish and Wildlife Service didn't render a decision on whether the snail should be declared an endangered species, nor did it promise to make such a determination later. It said further investigation of the matter may happen "if funding does become available."
MULLING NEXT MOVES
Greenwald declined to say what the group may do next, whether it will continue to push specifically for the snail's protection or return focus to the Townsend's big-eared bat, which he asserted was not fully considered in the mine's environmental review.
CBD's efforts on the bat's behalf have come farther along than its snail campaign. In March 2013, it asked the state Fish and Game Commission to declare the bat a threatened or endangered species. Eight months later the commission declared the bat a "candidate species," and said it will report before winter on whether the bat merits special protection under the California Endangered Species Act.
A commission spokesman was unable to say what impact any such decision could have on the mining proposal.
Klingmann was unmoved by the bat argument. He said the company "did its homework" in the two environmental reviews by fully documenting 200 caves and other openings where bats may live at the site.
He noted that the company intends to employ an independent biologist to investigate, prior to any nearby mining work, openings that contain a bat on Soledad Mountain.
"We are being careful," Klingmann said. "We want to be seen as good stewards and so forth."
He emphasized that, had CBD played its cards differently, the company probably would have made concessions for the snail as well, though he declined to say what kind of compromise it may have agreed to.
"If the CBD had done us the courtesy of a call," he said, "you know, things might have developed differently."