September 5, 1996, was not your typical workday at Molycorp’s Mountain Pass Mine in California. Molycorp employee Steve Johnson recalls how the intruders arrived: “They stopped at the gate, the guard, he wasn’t going to let them in, and the guys threatened to pull a gun on him, and he let them in.” Susan Messier, another employee, remembers the “30 armed people wearing vests, bullet-proof vests.” But calling the police was out of the question since the intruders themselves wielded a badge and a warrant.

Molycorp’s mine had fallen prey to an armed raid led by California Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, enforcers of the Endangered Species Act. The government feared that the Mountain Pass Mine threatened the habitat of the desert tortoise, an endangered species, and justified the raid on the tortoises’ behalf.

Molycorp, a subsidiary of Unocal, mines lanthanide, a rare earth mineral that has been classified as strategic due to its many uses in military electronic products. Lanthanide is also used in the production of household items like floor tile and televisions, medical devices like X-ray machines and lasers, and catalytic converters for automobiles.

Johnson vividly remembers the raid. “It was a SWAT type raid, they were wearing flak jackets, they were SWAT guys. They were like on a drug raid. And they were armed,” he says. Susan Messier recalls that “some had ‘federal agent’ emblazoned on their vests, and they had their guns out.”

Molycorp’s attorneys, arriving at the site of the raid via the company jet, were surprised to find they could not represent their company. According to Messier, “they got to the gate and they were rejected and not allowed onto the property by the federal agents standing there.” Molycorp employees “were not allowed to speak to our attorneys to get any guidance as to what our rights were at the time.” Government agents rounded up Messier and other mine employees and herded them into a conference room. After a few hours, many had to go to the bathroom, for which they needed special permission and an armed escort.

Molycorp’s employees believed at the time that the government agents were looking for evidence of serious crimes or drugs. But they were surprised to discover that the raid was related to a water spill in the Mojave Desert in July 1996, when a water pipe broke during routine cleaning, spilling thousands of gallons of water into the desert. Although some of the spill was waste water, containing low level radioactive material (a by-product of lanthanide mining), independent analysts insist that the radioactivity was not significantly higher than normal background levels. The government agencies, fearing an environmental hazard and possible cover up by Molycorp, organized the raid to seize all company documents related to their water-pipe maintenance.

Following the armed government raid, a coalition of 29 federal, state, and local government agencies (including California Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs) descended on this small mine in the desert. Each agency felt it had jurisdiction at the site and wanted to play an active role in the clean-up.

The government candidly admits that the working conditions created by 29 government agencies may not have been ideal. Molly Brady of the BLM said, “One of the big challenges here is that there were so many different agencies involved and it was difficult for . . . the agencies to work with each other. We really didn’t know each other’s rules and regulations that well.” John Key, the BLM’s Incident Commander at the spill site, added, “Each agency has their own rules and regulations and they often, sometimes they conflict a little, sometimes they overlap, so it’s always interesting.”

Molycorp was required to submit a clean-up plan that satisfied every government agency on site. Instead of hastening the clean-up, the government agencies began quibbling among themselves regarding the proper clean-up procedures. Since nothing could begin until all agencies had signed off on the plan, nine months went by with no action taken. Molly Brady readily concedes “a long period of time went by. I think everybody looks bad here, nobody looks good, for not having initiated it sooner.” Government officials concede that there is absolutely no evidence that the spill was hazardous. Brady admits “it’s possible that there’s no severe human risk from this. We have not conducted the studies. We don’t have the information to tell us what, if anything, over the long term would be a risk to human health and safety.”

But human health and safety was not the government’s primary concern; the Endangered Species Act and the endangered desert tortoise were. In 1994, Senator Diane Feinstein and Congressman George Miller passed a law creating the Mojave National Preserve, thus giving federal protection to the desert land adjacent to Molycorp’s mine. It also gave the government additional powers to protect the endangered desert tortoise, which lives in the preserve.

Molycorp’s first battle with the desert tortoise, listed as an endangered animal in 1989, began when a dead tortoise was found on the mine site. As required under the Endangered Species Act, Molycorp reported the dead tortoise. The government then launched an investigation to determine whether the tortoise met its end by foul play, and even conducted a tortoise autopsy. However, as Messier explains, “they never did find any conclusive evidence that anybody at the company had anything to do with this tortoise.” This did not stop the government from levying fines of over a million dollars, leading mine employees to refer to it as the “million dollar tortoise.”

This “million dollar tortoise” triggered a number of changes for Molycorp. Employees were now forced to undergo “desert tortoise worker education classes,” better known by the participants as “desert tortoise sensitivity training.” According to Alan Stein of the BLM, this training was supposed to “heighten people’s awareness of the tortoise” and outline “what they can and can’t do.” For instance, employees could no longer drive faster than 15 miles per hour—while maintaining a 100-foot separation between vehicles. They could no longer operate heavy equipment without being monitored by government-authorized biologists, hired at company expense, to make sure no tortoises were in their way. Tortoise-proof fencing was erected to keep the tortoise away from harm. Official regulations called for employees to stop work immediately if they spotted a tortoise, wait 15 minutes, and call the government-authorized biologist to assess the situation if the tortoise did not move. Since waiting for a tortoise to move could literally take all day, employees would usually close an area if a tortoise was spotted and continue work elsewhere. Finally, a government detail of armed security agents was hired at Molycorp’s expense to patrol the cleanup site 24 hours a day.

According to the Endangered Species Act, only government-authorized biologists can touch a tortoise. In fact, Molycorp’s employees could not even move a tortoise away from obvious dangers such as oncoming vehicles. If an unauthorized person moves a tortoise, U.S. Fish and Wildlife considers it a “take,” which can incur penalties up to $75,000 in fines and a year in prison. In addition, Molycorp’s employees could not touch the empty shell of a dead tortoise. To possess a dead shell requires petitioning U.S. Fish and Wildlife for a permit, which would only be granted for a compelling scientific reason.

There are a number of other desert tortoise protections, including an official tortoise adoption agency which places tortoises that cannot be returned to the wild in suitable homes; a 24-hour Tortoise Hot-Line to report violators of the Endangered Species Act or to report a tortoise in danger; and a Tortoise Board, a government agency which administers a $550 per acre Tortoise Tax, imposed upon homeowners. At last count the fund had accrued a $14 million surplus to protect the tortoise.

Considering all of the restrictions on human activity, is the desert tortoise population likely to rebound? Actually, one of the main threats to the tortoise isn’t human at all. It’s the common raven, a fellow inhabitant of the Mojave Desert. Alan Stein of the BLM explains that the raven “flies down and it pokes through the shell and . . . basically eats the tortoise.” Unfortunately, according to Stein, the raven “can’t be killed” because it’s “protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.”

Ironically, in light of all of these layers of regulation, the government doesn’t even consider the desert tortoise as a species to be threatened. A tortoise found in the Mojave National Preserve is classified as an endangered species, giving it the full weight and protection of the United States government. But the endangered or threatened status applies only to the Mojave population. The other two-thirds of the desert tortoise population, those east of the Colorado River, are not considered threatened, and thus enjoy no federal protections.

Moreover, the Mojave desert tortoise population is actually thriving. Stein admits that the BLM encountered “far greater numbers [of tortoises] than we thought there would be,” including “a lot of young tortoises.” Even U.S. Fish and Wildlife acknowledged that there were more tortoises in the Mojave population than they initially believed. Alex Heindl, a herpetologist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, explains that the tortoise was downgraded to threatened status when it “became obvious that there were more tortoises than we had anticipated.”

If the desert tortoise is not threatened as a species, and there are more tortoises than anyone expected, why have government agencies gone to such extremes? Philippe de Vosjoli, an expert on reptiles and amphibians and publisher of Vivarium, has seen this kind of overzealous government action before. According to Vosjoli, the government believes it’s “basically better to uphold the law than to really save animals. Because it’s not the animals that are a primary concern. The law is becoming a primary concern, and implementing the law becomes a primary concern.” Vosjoli’s organization, the American Federation of Herpetoculturists, has reported many similar armed federal raids by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service into homes with exotic reptiles and amphibians. “There [was] one recently that occurred in Oklahoma where the individual was afraid they were going to shoot his dog,” Vosjoli reports. He adds, “A man in Colorado was raided and was also threatened with having the IRS investigate him. They do have DEA-type authority when dealing with wildlife.”

Molycorp has paid to date $6.2 million in fines relating to the water spill and the tortoise regulations, and the government agencies say they may be camped out in the Mojave Desert “indefinitely” to monitor the spill site. Susan Messier, Molycorp’s former accounting clerk, recalls that Molycorp’s profits each year were less than the government-assessed fines and blames recent job losses on the government’s regulations. Since the 1996 raid, Molycorp has been forced to lay off about one-half of the mine’s 230 employees, with more layoffs pending. “It seems . . . that there was somebody with an agenda out there that had nothing to do with the pipeline, and they were just using that to further their own agenda,” concludes Messier.

If there is an agenda, it probably has more to do with the California Democrats, Senator Diane Feinstein and Congressman George Miller, who authored the 1994 California Desert Protection Act. Both wrote stern letters to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 1997, excoriating Molycorp over the pipeline spill incident and demanding harsh penalties against the mine. Senator Feinstein wrote that Molycorp was “continuing to put desert resources and the public at risk” and expressed concern for “the endangered desert tortoise habitat.” Congressman Miller sought assurances from Secretary Babbitt that his department “will be firm with Molycorp.”

With this kind of political force in play, it comes as no surprise that there’s more trouble ahead. Sources close to the government investigation say Molycorp is about to face criminal indictments which could sink the company. Experts wonder if the United States is prepared to deal with the consequences of forcing the only source of lanthanides in the country out of business. Murray Page, an independent chemical engineer familiar with Molycorp’s operation, reinforces the consensus that if Molycorp, the only American supplier of lanthanides, were to shut down, the United States “would end up importing them .. . from China.”

Weiji Cui of Baotou Rare Earth, a communist Chinese company, agrees. If Molycorp goes out of business, Baotou Rare Earth stands to gain control over the entire U.S. market for lanthanides. When asked if he believes Molycorp is about to go out of business, Cui responds, “I think probably. I think, yeah, probably go out of business.” Cui and Baotou Rare Earth are so confident that Molycorp will go under that they have already opened up an office in San Francisco. Cui boasts, “I think in the future, my company will become the most important rare earth company in the world.”

Baotou Rare Earth Company appears to be well on their way to achieving that goal. Together, Molycorp and Baotou Rare Earth supply 80 percent of the world’s lanthanides. After the armed government raid, Molycorp’s production fell by 17 percent, the exact amount Baotou’s production rose. When asked if Baotou Rare Earth has to worry about endangered species laws, Cui laughs heartily as he mockingly responds, “It will be decided by our top management.”

Despite the government’s heavy-handed tactics, Molly Brady of the BLM still maintains that the government is motivated by only the purest of intentions. Brady insists that “We, the BLM, are very interested because we’re a neighbor. We’re a neighbor and we want to make sure that everything is going to be healthy.”

What do the government’s “good neighbor” policies reveal? At the very least, it would appear that communist China is more business-friendly than the United States. But there are a number of pressing questions that have yet to be answered. Could there be a quid pro quo between California Democrats Feinstein and Miller and the Chinese government? Senator Feinstein’s husband, financier Richard Blum, has many well-publicized connections to Chinese business interests. Moreover, the Democratic National Committee is knee-deep in the Chinese influence-pedaling scandal.

The use of force by our government against its own citizens should not be undertaken lightly, and to realize that this force was administered on behalf of another species, not to defend the rights of fellow citizens, is even more disturbing. Vosjoli asks, “What degree do you act in detriment of your own species in favor of other ones?” As communist China moves in to fill the void left by Molycorp’s layoffs, another question is: To what degree do we act in detriment of U.S. business interests and national security in favor of communist China?