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April 18, 2014

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Whittemore-lobbied copper mine bill makes it out of committee

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Tim Dunn/Reno Gazette-Journal

Defense attorney John Arrascada, left, with Harvey Whittemore at his side talks to the media after Whittemore’s arraignment Thursday, June 7, 2012, in Reno.

Mark Amodei

Mark Amodei

Ever since Harvey Whittemore came under investigation for his political dealings, it’s raised questions around Capitol Hill about whether, if Whittemore went down, all the Nevada-related bills and issues he’d lobbied members of Congress on would come down with him.

One day after Whittemore was indicted by a federal grand jury, we have an answer: Nope.

Whittemore was one of the chief lobbyists representing Nevada Copper in its quest to turn over about 11,000 acres of federal lands to the city of Yerington to develop a mine expected to produce 250 to 300 million pounds of copper per year.

Today, the House Natural Resources Committee passed a bill to do just that, with bipartisan support.

“I will continue to work with my fellow Nevadans … to bring the bill up for a timely vote before the full House of Representatives,” the bill’s sponsor Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., said. “I trust it will encounter the same display of bipartisanship (in the Senate) … Go Harry Reid and Dean Heller.”

The project, known as Pumpkin Hollow, is expected to cost about $1 billion to develop, and be up and running in three or four years. According to an estimate from Amodei’s office, the mine will employ 750 to 800 people once operating at peak capacity.

But by the time Pumpkin Hollow is open for business, the project may not be quite as lucrative a venture as it seems today.

The price of copper peaked at $4.50 a pound in 2011, right around the time Whittemore was lobbying Congress most heavily to advance legislation to free up the federal land.

But since then, prices have dropped and the market — once thirsty for new mines — is preparing for a relative rush of U.S. production.

According to financial reports cited in the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. copper industry, which experienced only about 1 percent growth during the recession, is supposed to post 8.5 percent growth by 2014.

In 2014, projections put the price of copper at an average of $3.61 per pound.

But that's still enough for Nevada Copper to see the venture as profitable — which could be good news for Yerington too.

Nevada's Legislature is gearing up for an epic fight over the state's mining law just in time for its sesquicentennial anniversary. If the Legislature decides to try to change the mining industry's constitutionally guaranteed tax rate, the question will go before voters in 2014 — just before Pumpkin Hollow is fully up and running.

Whittemore pleaded not guilty today to four felony counts of funneling illegal campaign contributions to a federal official and then lying to investigators about it.

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