Comment on this article |
Email this article |
Mining company declares "We will not dig another hole" (english)
by John Krist
13 Jul 2003
Outraged tribal representatives persuaded Calif. lawmakers to approve a law requiring open-pit mines on Native American sacred lands be filled back in after closed, and the landscape restored to its natural contours.
Mixing cement pure gold in California
John Krist, July 13, 2003
California has long had a conflicted relationship with the precious metal responsible for its abrupt vault into statehood more than 150 years ago.
Gold's lure and luster transformed California almost overnight from sleepy provincial outpost into populous and wealthy urban power, fueling a tide of immigration and creating vast wealth.
Almost as quickly, the quest for California gold began to visit ruin upon the state's other great assets: water, forests and farmland.
California is hardly alone in confronting the dark side of the golden gleam; states throughout the West still bear the physical scars of a century or more of mining. Recently, however, California has taken a radical step toward preventing future damage of this sort, and in the process has exposed the industry's economic fragility.
In the early days of the California gold rush, the destructive environmental effects of mining were localized. But when the easily found gold was gone, miners began using high-pressure blasts of water from giant brass nozzles to get at gold buried in vast deposits of sand and gravel laid down by ancient rivers.
Nearly unimaginable quantities of debris washing downstream from the Sierra Nevada hydraulic mines choked rivers and buried farmland. More than a billion cubic yards of tailings washed into San Francisco Bay, impeding navigation and turning the ocean brown at the Golden Gate. Altogether, Gold Rush-era miners rearranged about 5.6 billion cubic yards of California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Gold miners are still rearranging California, but the technology has changed considerably. Since the 1950s, the state's gold production has been derived primarily from giant open-pit operations in the Mojave desert, where rock containing minuscule amounts of the precious metal is excavated, pulverized and bathed in cyanide. As the cyanide leaches through heaps of gold-bearing debris, it picks up the precious metal, which can later be extracted from the solution.
Similar technology is employed throughout the West, from Nevada to Montana, attracting unflattering attention from critics concerned about the potential for toxic spills. In California, however, a recent change in mining regulations may hasten the end of this technique.
Because it takes 20 tons or more of low-grade ore to produce an ounce of gold through the cyanide leaching method, the holes produced by open-pit mining are, to put it mildly, substantial. A project proposed by Glamis Gold Ltd. in California's Imperial County would be 800 feet deep and a mile wide.
The Glamis project is the main reason for the new state regulation. The mine, located on federally owned land near the California-Arizona border, would have occupied a site sacred to the Quechan Indian nation. Because of that, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt denied the company's permit application in January 2001. The decision was reversed nine months later by his successor, Gale Norton.
Outraged tribal representatives persuaded state lawmakers to approve a law, signed April 7 by Gov. Gray Davis, requiring that open-pit mines on Native American sacred lands be filled back in after they close, and the landscape restored to its natural contours. The added expense of backfilling rendered the proposed Glamis project unprofitable, according to the company.
On April 10, Davis' appointees to the State Mining and Geology Board adopted regulations extending the reclamation requirements to all new open-pit metallic mines in California.
Although state law long has required mine operators to submit post-closure reclamation plans with their permit applications, that reclamation generally consisted of revegetation and steps to prevent the mine from harming air and water quality. Filling up the holes, though an option, was not usually required, said John Parrish, executive officer of the State Mining Board.
In its May newsletter, the California Mining Association quoted industry representatives who were dismayed by the new regulations and the added cost they represent.
"We will not dig another hole," said Richard De Voto, president of Canyon Resources, which mines in the Panamint Valley.
Even before the new regulations, California gold mining was a dying industry. According to the California Geological Survey, gold production declined 19 percent between 2000 and 2001, and is expected to drop by about 70 percent over the next two to three years.
Gold accounts for only $122 million of the state's $3.3 billion in annual non-fuel mineral production, according to the Geological Survey, dwarfed by unglamorous products such as construction sand and gravel ($953 million) and Portland cement ($768 million).
California may never be known as the Concrete State, but its future certainly is no longer as golden as its past.
John Krist is a senior reporter and columnist for the Ventura County Star in California. He wrote this piece for Writers on the Range (see archives: http://www.hcn.org/wotr/archives.jsp)