Mining industry consolidation and new technology are allowing mining companies in Nevada to produce 8-times more gold than 20 years ago. Both the Industry and conservationists are trying to get their arms around the impacts of today's mining. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.
PLASKON: The tiny town of Manhattan is nestled in the hills above Nye County's Big Smokey Valley, 300 miles north of Las Vegas. Mining companies are proud of it. They fixed up the land after it was mined. Unfortunately, few people are around to see it.
SOUND: Hi there
PLASKON: Like most abandoned mining towns, the only open business in Manhattan is the bar. Ken Shaeffer is a Manhattan resident.
SHAEFFER: I think they did an excellent job, they worked through the winter, there were only two guys who did that thing, but they had good equipment. They even tried to work after night and they got paid well for that.
PLASKON: They smoothed over tailings piles and put in native plants. But left the open pit. Aside from that it looks normal.
SHAEFFER: Oh ya, oh ya, they got awards for that.
PLASKON: The site won the Department of the Interior's Sustainable Development Mineral Environment Award last year. Mining today isn't like Manhattan. They have better methods for reclamation and are required to do so with bonds. Mining is also occurring on a much larger scale. In the past mining was for mostly what's called 'Free Gold', or visible chunks of gold. Not today says Round Mountain Gold Corporation's general manager Mike Lacchionne.
LACCHIONNE: We can't necessarily see the gold. It is microscopic.
PLASKON: In the past miners called pyrite 'Fools Gold' because of its illustrious gold color but little gold. Today's mining process for extracting gold means the mine even collects 'Fool's Gold'.
LACCIONNE: Ya, but if it has gold attached to it then it quickly becomes gold.
PLASKON: To find the invisible bits of gold, Round Mountain digs up 22 million pounds of rock every day, creating a giant hole, 1-thousand feet deep and a mile across.
PLASKON: The pit is so large boulder hauling trucks look like ants crawling up the side of it. Of the 22 million pounds of rock, 21 million are useless and discarded to a rock heap each day. The other million pounds go through various processes to get out microscopic fragments of the metal.
SOUND: Rock crusher
PLASKON: Chunks of rock the size of a table meet with steel balls inside this giant spinning rock grinder. Its nearly three stories tall and 5 feet wide. In seconds rocks the size of a table are pulverized to the size of a grain of sugar . . . then to a powder called 'liberation size', a thick mud. Outside, the mud pours through a series of bubbling tanks of cyanide.
SOUND: Bubbling tanks
PLASKON: The mine puts chunks of carbon in the tank. The particles of gold are so tiny, they stick to chunks of carbon, like a magnet. The carbon is collected on a screen and the gold is cleaned off. Gold is also super heated to further refine it. That process has put the blame on Nevada gold mines for widespread Mercury pollution in Idaho and Utah. Conservationists say when mines super-heat gold to remove impurities, high levels of mercury clouds of mercury are released and land in neighboring states. Nevada was reported as the largest mercury polluter until 2001 when gold mining companies agreed to a voluntary emissions programs. The Nevada Mining Association and EPA reported that Murcury emission have been greatly reduced, but last month the Reno Gazette Journal reported however that a UNR professor preparing an EPA report suspects Gold mines may be under-reporting the levels. Elyssa Rosen of the Great Basin Mine Watch says there is an easy solution.
ROSEN: We just haven't funded publicly any oversight and state oversight panels that would regulate the industry. The Nevada division of minerals is essentially about promoting the industry and it does do some abandoned mine clean up but it is mostly stay-out, stay alive kind of stuff.
PLASKON: Mining is already regulated under 35 state and federal laws. Debora Strussacker Government Affairs for Round Mountain Gold says more regulation isn't the answer. In fact they would like to see current laws consolidated.
ROSEN: Some of the regulations come with expensive permitting processes that are cumbersome. Few would rather see that money put into environmental protection on the ground and not put into a process that is not beneficial to us.
PLASKON: The mining industry has thrown its support behind a task force led by republicans in congress to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal laws. The effort began in April this year and is currently accepting public comment.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR