Miners and environmentalists agreeing?
That's hard to imagine these days in the West, where the two rival groups are clashing over public lands amid the biggest gold rush in U.S. history. Yet on a cactus-studded mountainside near the Nevada border, miners and environmentalists have come to an unusual, if uneasy, truce.
The Castle Mountain open-pit gold mine--a venture of the British Columbia-based Viceroy Resource Corp.--poured its first gold ingot in February after voluntarily making costly environmental concessions unprecedented in the mining industry.
"Here's an example of how miners and environmentalists can work together. It's setting the standards throughout the West," said environmentalist Peter Burk. He is head of Citizens for a Mojave National Park, one of several conservation groups that dropped their opposition to the mine after 2 1/2 years of negotiations with Viceroy.
The environmentalists hope the Castle Mountain project, about 60 miles south of Las Vegas, will serve as a model for other mines in the West. Viceroy officials, meanwhile, hope their concessions will soften the rip-and-run stereotype of miners and earn the company goodwill in a region that environmentalists want closed off to future mining.
"Nobody knew Viceroy when we got started on this project," said D. Ross Fitzpatrick, Viceroy's president. "Once you demonstrate you're serious about solving problems, you have a better comfort zone with people."
The Castle Mountain project is part of a modern-day mining boom that far overshadows the West's most famous boom, the California Gold Rush of 1849, which yielded about 2 million ounces of gold.
Last year alone, more than 5.7 million ounces of gold came out of Nevada, the West's biggest gold-producing state.
Rising gold prices and new, more efficient technology account for the heightened activity, and though a recent dip in gold prices has taken some luster off new development, production is expected to remain high for several years.
While old-time miners grubbed out nuggets with picks and shovels, new "heap leach" mines literally move mountains, processing vast quantities of low-grade ore to capture microscopic specks of gold.
Machinery crushes the ore into gravel and piles it in heaps by the acre. The rock is sprayed with a sodium cyanide solution, which then leaches down through the ore, dissolving the gold and carrying it to collection ponds. The solution is pumped to a building where the gold is adsorbed onto charcoal, redissolved, plated onto steel wool, and finally, washed off and melted into ingots.
The Castle Mountain mine requires 21 tons of ore and more than 40 tons of waste rock to produce just one ounce of gold--and this is a rich mine compared to most heap leach mines.
Because the mines go through so much earth for so little gold, they create environmental headaches unimagined in the early days of hard-rock gold mining, when most mines were shallow, underground tunnels.
The huge pits are left unfilled, remaining as gaping holes in the landscape. The poisonous cyanide collection ponds have killed thousands of migratory birds, enticed as they fly over the parched desert. And the mines are dusty and noisy, as dynamite shakes the earth and huge ore trucks with six-foot-high tires rumble day and night.
At the Castle Mountain mine, there were additional concerns.
Environmentalists worried that the mine would harm desert tortoises, a threatened species protected by the Endangered Species Act. They also worried that the water-thirsty mine's wells could draw down an aquifer feeding Piute Springs, a wildlife watering spot 15 miles away.
Finally, the mine is in the East Mojave Scenic Area, a 1.5-million-acre expanse of cactus, contorted Joshua trees and jagged mountains that environmentalists want turned into a national monument under the National Park Service.
Viceroy drew the attention of environmentalists in 1987, when the federal Bureau of Land Management concluded the proposed mine would have "no significant impact" on the environment.
"Viceroy applied for its permit to mine with a plan that contained practically no reclamation, no re-vegetation and no mitigation for tortoises or any other wildlife," said Deborah Reames, an attorney for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.
A coalition of environmental groups appealed the BLM's decision, pressing for a full environmental impact statement.
Over 2 1/2 years and 63 meetings, Viceroy and the environmentalists hammered out their unusual agreement. It was better than going to court for both groups--environmentalists knew Viceroy could get eventual approval of its mine, but Viceroy knew that litigation could delay its project for years.
Viceroy's environmental concessions start several miles down the road from the mine, where the company bought an old ranch once owned by 1920s movie stars Rex Bell and Clara Bow. The restored ranch house now serves as a corporate office, and the surrounding land is a desert tortoise refuge, off limits to cattle-grazing.
A few miles from the mine, orderly rows of Joshua trees, cactus and yucca plants stand in contrast to the surrounding desert vegetation, sparse and scattered. These are transplants--some of the 10,000 desert plants salvaged before heavy equipment started carving up the mine site last spring.
When the mine closes, cliffs too steep for replanting will be sprayed with a special rock stain to give them a natural, weathered look.
Viceroy also set aside $2 million to be used by environmental groups however they wish to protect the East Mojave. Reames said it most likely will go toward filling in one of the two big pits Viceroy will leave behind.
The unusual agreement between Viceroy and environmentalists worked because it was a pragmatic, problem-solving document and not a philosophical statement, Fitzpatrick said.
"You're never going to convince some environmentalists that it's a good idea to put a mine into operation," he said. "At the same time, those environmentalists will have trouble convincing a mining company not to."