Why America Can't Have Nice Things: Congress and a Stalled Nevada Mine

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Everyone agrees that the copper mine, which would create 1,300 jobs in a highly unemployed county, is a good idea -- and yet the Senate won't pass a bill allowing it to go forward.

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Downtown Yerington, Nevada (Ken Lund/Flickr)

In Greek mythology, the gods tortured Tantalus by making him stand, thirsty, in a pool of water that was always barely out of reach.

The residents of Lyon County, Nevada, can relate. Only for them, the water is valuable copper deposits buried beneath their feet. And the gods are the members of Congress who are keeping it unavailable.

At about 14 percent, the county has the highest unemployment rate in Nevada (which, as a state, has the highest unemployment rate in the country). And the federal government is partially to blame. A copper-mining company has designs on opening a new mine in the town of Yerington that would create about 800 mining jobs, 500 construction jobs, and plenty of ancillary employment opportunities. That's a lot of jobs in a town of 3,000. The only problem: The federal government owns the land surrounding the mine.

"This one project can probably take several points off the unemployment rate in this county," George Dini, the mayor of Yerington, said in a telephone interview. "The community is on life support, and it gets worse every week."

Dini has been watching with bated breath for the past 14 months as a bill that would allow the city of Yerington to buy 10,000 acres of federal land around the Pumpkin Hollow mine site for commercial, industrial, and recreational use has stalled in the Senate.

"People who are thinking about moving on ask me daily how the legislation is going," he said. "At this point, I'm saying they should look elsewhere. We've been working on this bill for 14 months. I can't keep looking them in the face and tell them it's just going to be a few more months."

In Nevada, this isn't an altogether uncommon problem. In fact, the federal government owns about 86 percent of the state's land. If Republicans are looking for tangible proof that the federal government's involvement is hurting economic development (a common rallying cry), Yerington is a good example.

"It's hard for the state's economy to grow if you can't have a larger footprint," said Rep. Mark Amodei, the Republican who first introduced the bill early last year.

What is perhaps most frustrating to residents of Yerington is that there seem to be no objections to the bill, at least not from the Nevada delegation. The bill passed out of the House with no problem, and after the inclusion of a provision that would designate other Nevada land as protected wilderness, Senate Majority Leader and Nevada Democrat Harry Reid gave it his support in December.

Reid and his Republican counterpart, Senator Dean Heller, reintroduced the bill this year, but there is still no timeline on when it will see any action.

"We have political disagreements all the time around here, but this is not that," Amodei said. "Here we have a land transfer for full value with no cost to the taxpayers or the government. Who is opposed to that? You know what, nobody."

Amodei noted that the mine did not violate any National Environmental Policy Act concerns, which has been a problem for Yerington in the past.

Even though it's not really a partisan issue, the struggles of this bill manage to elucidate the difficulties of turning a bill into a law. The bill may have had no objections, but unfortunately it never got the opportunity to be judged on its own merits. Instead, it was wrapped up with 15 other land bills in an omnibus package that was destined to die in the Senate. That larger bill included, among other things, a provision to let Border Patrol agents bypass environmental laws where they found them inconvenient, creating what Democrats called a "drone zone" through several national parks.

Things were made even harder by the fact that Senator Tom Coburn, R-Okla., was so strongly against land bills in general that he took to placing holds on them so they couldn't be brought up for a vote.

In December, it finally seemed like the bill was making forward progress. Dini, the mayor, says Reid told him that it would happen before the end of the year. But with the fiscal cliff taking all the oxygen out of Congress, even the majority leader couldn't make it happen for his constituents.

"I'm still new here, and even though everyone warned me about things moving slowly in the Senate, this does surprise me," Heller said in an interview in his office. "And for my constituents, they have a good argument when they say it's one step too many. If the federal government wasn't involved in this process, it would have been accomplished six months ago."

If it seems confusing to Heller, Dini says that to him and the people of Yerington, it's "mind-boggling."

"I don't know if broken is the right word," he said about Congress. "I think they've altered the intent of what Congress should be doing. They should be acting a lot quicker on things that are favorable to their constituents."

The Nevada delegation agrees, and believes that something will be done quickly. But that term is relative. What's quick for the Senate can feel like Tantalus's eternity to an out-of-work miner.

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Ben Terris is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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