VITAL SIGNSrnGOVERNMENTrnDesert StormrnTroopersrnby Marc MoranornSeptember 5,1996, was not your typicalrnworkday at Molycorp’s MountainrnPass Mine in California. Molycorprnemployee Steve Johnson recalls how thernintruders arrived: “They stopped at therngate, the guard, he wasn’t going to letrnthem in, and the guys threatened to pullrna gun on him, and he let them in.” SusanrnMessier, another employee, remembersrnthe “30 armed people wearing vests,rnbullet-proof vests.” But calling the policernwas out of the question since the intrudersrnthemselves wielded a badge andrna warrant.rnMolycorp’s mine had fallen prey to anrnarmed raid led by California Fish andrnGame and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, enforcersrnof the Endangered Species Act.rnThe government feared that the MountainrnPass Mine threatened the habitat ofrnthe desert tortoise, an endangeredrnspecies, and justified the raid on the tortoises’rnbehalfrnMolycorp, a subsidiary of Unocal,rnmines lanthanide, a rare earth mineralrnthat has been classified as strategic due tornits many uses in military electronic products.rnLanthanide is also used in the produchonrnof household items like floor tilernand televisions, medical devices like Xrayrnmachines and lasers, and catalyticrnconverters for automobiles.rnJohnson vividly remembers the raid.rn”It was a SWAT type raid, they werernwearing flak jackets, they were SWATrnguys. They were like on a drug raid. Andrnthey were armed,” he says. SusanrnMessier recalls that “some had ‘federalrnagent’ emblazoned on their vests, andrnthey had their guns out.”rnMolycorp’s attorneys, arriving at thernsite of the raid via the company jet, werernsurprised to find they could not representrntheir company. According to Messier,rn”they got to the gate and they were rejectedrnand not allowed onto the propertyrnby the federal agents standing there.”rnMolycorp employees “were not allowedrnto speak to our attorneys to get any guidancernas to what our rights were at therntime.” Government agents rounded uprnMessier and other mine employees andrnherded them into a conference room.rnAfter a few hours, many had to go to thernbathroom, for which they needed specialrnpermission and an armed escort.rnMolycorp’s employees believed at therntime that the government agents werernlooking for evidence of serious crimes orrndrugs. But they were surprised to discoverrnthat the raid was related to a water spillrnin the Mojave Desert in July 1996, whenrna water pipe broke during routine cleaning,rnspilling thousands of gallons of waterrninto the desert. Although some of thernspill was waste water, containing low levelrnradioactive material (a by-product ofrnlanthanide mining), independent analystsrninsist that the radioactivity was notrnsignificantly higher than normal backgroundrnlevels. The government agencies,rnfearing an environmental hazardrnand possible cover up by Molycorp, organizedrnthe raid to seize all company documentsrnrelated to their water-pipe maintenance.rnFollowing the armed governmentrnraid, a coalition of 29 federal, state, andrnlocal government agencies (includingrnCalifornia Fish and Game, U.S. Fishrnand Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management,rnthe Environmental ProtectionrnAgency, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs)rndescended on this small mine inrnthe desert. Each agency felt it had jurisdictionrnat the site and wanted to play anrnactive role in the clean-up.rnThe government candidly admits thatrnthe working conditions created by 29rngovernment agencies may not have beenrnideal. Molly Brady of the BLM said,rn”One of the big challenges here is thatrnthere were so many different agenciesrninvolved and it was difficult for . . . thernagencies to work with each other. Wernreally didn’t know each other’s rulesrnand regulations that well.” John Key, thernBLM’s Incident Commander at the spillrnsite, added, “Each agency has their ownrnrules and regulations and they often,rnsometimes they conflict a little, sometimesrnthey overlap, so it’s always interesting.”rnMolycorp was required to submit arnclean-up plan that satisfied every governmentrnagency on site. Instead of hasteningrnthe clean-up, the government agenciesrnbegan quibbling among themselvesrnregarding the proper clean-up procedures.rnSince nothing could begin untilrnall agencies had signed off on the plan,rnnine months went by with no action taken.rnMolly Brady readily concedes “arnlong period of time went by. I think everybodyrnlooks bad here, nobody looksrngood, for not having initiated it sooner.”rnGovernment officials concede thatrnthere is absolutely no evidence that thernspill was hazardous. Brady admits “it’srnpossible that there’s no severe humanrnrisk from this. We have not conductedrnthe studies. We don’t have the informationrnto tell us what, if anything, over thernlong term would be a risk to humanrnhealth and safety.”rnBut human health and safety was notrnthe government’s primary concern; thernEndangered Species Act and the endangeredrndesert tortoise were. In 1994, SenatorrnDiane Feinstein and CongressmanrnGeorge Miller passed a law creating thernMojave National Preserve, thus givingrnfederal protection to the desert land adjacentrnto Molycorp’s mine. It also gave therngovernment additional powers to protectrnthe endangered desert tortoise, whichrnlives in the preserve.rnMolycorp’s first battle with the desertrntortoise, listed as an endangered animalrnin 1989, began when a dead tortoise wasrnfound on the mine site. As required underrnthe Endangered Species Act, Molycorprnreported the dead tortoise. The governmentrnthen launched an investigationrnto determine whether the tortoise met itsrnend by foul play, and even conducted arntortoise autopsy. However, as Messier explains,rn”they never did find any conclusivernevidence that anybody at the companyrnhad anything to do with this tortoise.”rnThis did not stop the government fromrnlevying fines of over a million dollars,rnleading mine employees to refer to it asrnthe “million dollar tortoise.”rnThis “million dollar tortoise” triggeredrna number ofchanges for Molycorp. Em-rn38/CHRONICLESrnrnrn