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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Kitty Litter

Air Date: Week of

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A high-stakes mining dispute north of Reno is not about gold, silver or any other precious metal. The commodity in question is clay used to make premium kitty litter. Willie Albright reports from Hungry Valley.


CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A high-stakes mining dispute is underway just north of Reno, Nevada. But it's not about gold, silver, or other precious metal. The commodity in question is clay used to make premium kitty litter. Willie Albright reports from Hungry Valley.

ALBRIGHT: Hungry Valley, home to deer, coyote, hawks, and other wildlife, is one of the last undeveloped areas close to Reno. Chicago-based Oil-Dri Corporation, the world's largest manufacturer of kitty litter, wants to dig two open pit mines here. Plant Manager Craig Paisely says the clay Oil-Dri needs to supply its western customers, a mineral called calcium mont-morrilonite, can only be found in Hungry Valley.

PAISLEY: Oil-Dri has been searching for this type of a clay deposit in the western part of the United States for probably 25 to 30 years. I know for a fact that there has been holes and samples taken in literally every state this side of the Mississippi.

ALBRIGHT: According to Paisely, the clay in Hungry Valley is unique because of its tremendous absorbency. It's also relatively dust-free, making it a healthier kitty litter ingredient. Kitty litter is a one-billion-dollar-a-year industry, and Paisley says the company will bring 100 well-paying jobs to the community.

PAISELY: We're going to build a 15 million dollar plant. It's going to have a 12 million dollar per year impact on the local economy. It's a major investment for us. Because it is such a premium deposit for us, it's a good, solid business decision.

ALBRIGHT: However, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony also has land in Hungry Valley, bought about 15 years ago to house its growing population. It doesn't want Oil-Dri to be its neighbor.


ALBRIGHT: The colony and its supporters held its protest pow-wow last spring. Colony member, David Hemke.

HEMKE: Now it's just, you know, our little community here against a big international mining company like Oil-Dri. Now, what chance do we stand? I don't know. But we feel we have some legitimate issues here.

ALBRIGHT: According to the colony, the mine will create noise, dust, heavy traffic, and possible health hazards. But the Mining Law of 1872 allows residential mining when the mineral can't be found elsewhere. Oil-Dri operates a residential mine in Mississippi, and Paisely says people there have no problem with its proximity to their homes.
Colony Chairman Arlen Melendez says his people feel differently.

MELENDEZ: Reno, Nevada is not Mississippi. If I were Senator Reid, Senator Ensign and our congressional people, I would be jumping on the bandwagon to stop this Oil-Dri thing, because it's making havoc for the rest of the mining industry. Everybody's going to jump on changing the regulations. If they think that there were only a few people before, because of this Oil-Dri mining, everybody's going to be on it.

ALBRIGHT: The Colony and other nearby residential areas have formed a coalition, Citizens for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods. The group recently spent ten thousand dollars in one week on radio ads to help sway public opinion.


WOMAN: Morning, honey. Breakfast?

MAN: Just coffee. This story in the paper just ruined my appetite. They're still talking about putting those open pit mines in Hungry Valley.

WOMAN: You're kidding. You mean the ones for kitty litter? That valley belongs to all of us. It would just be destroyed.

MAN: Well, that's bad enough. But look. The study says the dust from this kitty litter could cause cancer, and it could put arsenic in our ground water.


ALBRIGHT: Under pressure from critics, the Bureau of Land Management commissioned an environmental impact statement that concluded the mine should go forward. Paisely says the mine is safe and accuses opponents of trying to scare the public.

PAISELY: It's difficult to mitigate an issue that doesn't exist. The perception is there's going to be a traffic problem. The perception is there's going to be a dust problem. The perception is there's going to be water draw-down problems. And when you do all the studying and you do all the technical data and you find that, hey, those may be somebody's perception, but we're not finding anything that validates that there's going to be a real problem.

ALBRIGHT: The environmental impact statement does predict increased dust, although not enough to pose a health hazard, and makes no suggestions for fixing the problem. Colony Spokesman Todd Irvine says the government is condoning environmental racism.

IRVINE: Washoe County and the State of Nevada will be pulling in all the taxes off this mining operation. We won't get any of it, but we will be getting the brunt of the pollution. And that's an environmental justice concern that has not been addressed.

ALBRIGHT: Oil-Dri Vice President Robert Vetere says the company needs to build the mine in Hungry Valley because the clay can't be found elsewhere.

VETERE: We didn't decide to put it here. You know, somebody greater than me put it here. We're just trying to take it out and give it to the 65 million homes that have cats in it.

ALBRIGHT: The Washoe County Planning Commission is considering issuing a special-use permit to Oil-Dri for its mine. Both sides have vowed to appeal, whatever the commission decides. For Living on Earth, I'm Willie Albright in Hungry Valley.



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