Republished from the pages of National Geographic magazine
from NationalGeographic Website
remnants of mineral mining from an open pit mine in Nevada.
In spite of the environmental effects of mining, demand is high:
Each year the U.S. consumes 24,000 pounds (10,885 kilograms)
of new nonfuel
minerals per person.
In the Malakoff diggings of California's
Sierra Nevada lies the wreckage of an old dream. It is a bizarre
man-made canyon sculpted into grim spires and fins, cream-white
surfaces streaked with red, the whole tortured architecture capped
by a fringe of nearly black forest.
The riffles were in place to separate
gold from the slurry, which was sent through a system of tunnels
into the South Yuba River and from there, via the Feather, to the
Sacramento - so much slurry that with every spring flood the
productive farms of the Sacramento Valley were smothered under yet
another layer of mud.
But the Malakoff site still dribbles
slurry into the watershed of the Sacramento, and this weird,
human-carved landscape remains as a useful symbol of the West's long
infatuation with the dream of treasure and with the legislation
created to service that obsession: the General Mining Law of 1872,
one of the oldest land laws still on the books.
...and other hardrock minerals.
To keep a claim valid, the claimant need only pay an annual $100 holding fee. Upon proof of a valid mineral discovery and an investment of $500 in development, the miner could patent - actually buy - the land for $5 an acre for lode claims and $2.50 an acre for placer claims.
Although miners are still free to stake claims, Congress last year placed a moratorium on patenting them. The hardrock mining industry and its supporters say that the law remains as essential to the development of the West as it was in 1872.
Economist John Dobra of the
University of Nevada, for instance, estimates that in 1998 gold and
silver mining alone pumped 7.7 billion dollars into local economies,
accounted for 84,000 jobs, provided more than two billion dollars in
household income, and supported hundreds of communities scattered
from the wilderness of Alaska to the deserts of Nevada. For most of
this, supporters say, many thanks to the General Mining Law of 1872.
It is estimated, for example, that more
than 240 billion dollars (overall value adjusted for inflation) in
gold, silver, copper, lead, and zinc, have been extracted from lands
made available by the General Mining Law. The sum total of patent
fees paid to the government is unknown. What is known is that the
1872 law does not require the miner to pay any royalty whatsoever to
the federal government.
In February 1999, Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck announced a two-year moratorium on mining claims in a hundred-mile (161-kilometer) stretch of Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, a move heartily endorsed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
No friend to the General Mining Law, Babbitt once described it as,
Not too many years ago, such an outburst from a Secretary of the Interior would have been unthinkable.
After all, a case could be made that the General Mining Law of 1872 built the West. After the discovery of gold in January 1848 on California's American River, tens of thousands of people scurried to California and from there into all the nooks and crannies of the interior West. Development capital from San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and London poured in. With money came clattering mills, stinking smelters, spurline railroads, and armies of laborers arriving from all over the world.
Primitive wilderness camps were
transformed into smoking industrial towns ringed by waste piles.
But the image of the independent prospector striking into the backcountry with hand tools is no longer as relevant as it used to be.
That kind of mining is virtually history, an experience buried in the memories of a few surviving men and women whose hardrock times run back to the 1930s.
Ask a man like long-retired Jack Murdock of Winnemucca, Nevada, what it was like prospecting out near Midas during the Depression, and he’ll tell you it was no bonanza.
On a half dozen occasions over the past three years I set out through the West on my own prospecting trip to discover what some of the legacies of the General Mining Law of 1872 might be.
My first sortie brought me to a quiet room in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) office in Spokane, Washington. On a stainless steel table lay several carcasses - two tundra swans, a golden-eye, a couple of wood ducks, a mallard.
Their eyes were glazed by death, necks and wings frozen into ugly contortions. Freezers contain dozens more like them.
What was killing the birds?
Mostly lead, and it was happening through much of the Coeur d'Alene River Basin. It was here, a little more than ten years after passage of the General Mining Law, that the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene in Idaho became the site of one of the West's biggest silver strikes. The river and its tributaries were deemed valuable mainly as sewers to carry away the waste tailings laced with lead, cadmium, and other metals.
In 1917 a lead smelter opened and within
a few years the Coeur d'Alene Press was publishing headlines about
the "River of Muck" and the "Valley of Death." In all, some 72
million tons (65 million metric tons) of tailings have been dumped
into the South Fork in the century that mining has been pursued
Much of what doesn't get spread around
on floodplains ends up in the area's recreational treasure, Coeur
d'Alene Lake. There are an estimated 75 million cubic yards (57
million cubic meters) of contaminated sediments spread out over the
lake bottom to a depth of 15 inches (38 centimeters).
In 1991 the tribe filed suit against
nine companies for damage to the land and water, as provided for in
the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and
Liability Act of 1980 - a mouthful more conveniently known as the
Superfund Act. The lawsuit is pending.
The site runs about 140 miles (225
kilometers) along the river and its tributaries from Milltown to
Butte - most of it the product of the Anaconda Company, which staked
out its mining claims on federal land and began mining copper here
in the 1880s.
According to an estimate from the
nonprofit Mineral Policy Center in Washington, D.C., as many
as 200 million cubic meters (262 million cubic yards) of tailings
could contain 9,000 metric tons (9,921 tons) of arsenic, 200 tons
(181 metric tons) of cadmium, 90,000 tons (81,647 metric tons) of
copper, 20,000 tons (18,140 metric tons) of lead, 200 tons (181
metric tons) of silver, and 50,000 tons (45,359 metric tons) of
By the 1990s ARCO was digging things up and moving earth around with beaverlike industry - buying out homeowners where necessary, removing or capping and revegetating old tailings piles in Butte, Anaconda, and other towns.
The work continues, as it will for years to come, and at some considerable cost.
More than that, actually.
ARCO ultimately settled part of a
lawsuit brought by the state of Montana and other parties for some
240 million dollars. But cleanup and restoration efforts must
continue until they are completed to the EPA's satisfaction.
Under such a royalty system the 740 million dollars in gold and silver produced from unpatented federal lands in 1998, for instance, would have garnered around 59 million dollars, instead of - well - nothing.
Other reformers, like Interior Secretary Babbitt, would accept a royalty of 5 percent.
All say an additional mining fee should
be instituted to help pay for cleanup efforts and that the current
moratorium on patents should be made permanent. Too many patents,
they say, turn out to be windfalls, and, while it may be an extreme
example, they cite the 60 acres of patented land outside the city of
Phoenix that cost the "miner" who purchased them from the government
a total of $150 dollars. Ten years later he sold the property for
$400,000. It is now part of a golf resort worth millions of dollars.
Indeed, the Sixteen to One's Mike Miller thinks that the government may be too quick to label an area "sensitive" and thereby bar its exploration.
Miller also insisted that any kind of royalty would,
Defenders of the industry also insist that new reclamation standards are not needed.
Today's miner is not the bad guy of the
past, they say. He is environmentally aware, not least because a
plethora of federal laws, from the Clean Water Act to the Endangered
Species Act, as well as many state laws and regulations, make it
impossible for him not to be aware.
The hills are real and so are the grasses, the deer, and the lake.
I saw them all during a tour of the mine in the company of Raymond Krauss, the mine's environmental manager. I saw waste rock piles shaped into eye-pleasing mounds, the milling operation that recycles and contains all processed water, and the huge tailings pond that, over time, will become a 600-acre (243-hectare) wetland.
I saw the sophisticated monitoring
system for the early detection of contamination in the groundwater.
I even saw the gate placed over the mouth of a tunnel to protect the
maternity roost for a local population of Townsend's big-eared bats.
As evidence, reformers point to a number of dramatic modern failures:
Many problem mines are capable of producing gold that can be seen only with a microscope.
The process involved extracting ore
containing as little as 0.02 ounce (0.57 grams) of gold to the ton
(0.91 metric ton), grinding it, then piling it onto the land in
enormous pads, some of them 200 feet (61 meters) high. A cyanide
solution is dripped over the top of the pad and leaches through it,
picking up gold along the way. The solution is then collected from
beneath the pad and piped off to a refinery for final processing.
Mining directly accounts for more than 3,500 jobs in the region.
West is no fan of mining reform.
While no more in favor of drastic reform measures than West (he would support a net proceeds royalty, however), John Milton, the chairman of the Humboldt County Board of Commissioners and a member of the Humboldt River Basin Water Authority, was less certain about the absence of major environmental impact.
Ordinarily, the Humboldt River is reduced to a trickle by the end of the summer, he said.
Still, he emphasized,
There were other hits to worry about, he admitted, hits having more to do with the boom-and-bust nature of the business than anything environmentalists have been trying to impose.
Because central banks in several nations have been selling or leasing much of their gold reserves, the price of gold has dropped in recent years.
In February 1996 it stood at $414.80 an ounce (28.4 grams), but by the summer of 1999 it had plummeted to $253.
That very afternoon, as it happened, Placer Dome, a Canadian company that had purchased two Humboldt County mines in May 1999, called a press conference to announce that because of declining gold prices it was suspending all production at one mine and milling operations for both - this less than two months after the company had taken over.
Two hundred full-time employees out of
600 would be laid off immediately.
And while I was wondering about that, I recalled the day in 1997, when I hired a plane to fly over the Carlin Trend, a 50-mile-long (80-kilometer-long) swath that provides the ore for much of Nevada's gold production. The desert below was marked by open pit after open pit, heap-leach pad after heap-leach pad, tailings pond after tailings pond.
What I saw from the air that day gave
weight to the critics' claim that hardrock mining produces more
solid waste annually than the amount that spills out of America's
cities. That was a legacy I might have anticipated in that history
book 30 years ago, but didn't.
Leaving Nevada I thought about those dead lakes shining in the desert sun, the dead birds I had seen in Spokane, the hundreds and thousands of abandoned mines still leaking poisons into the West's water, the sprawling chemical filth of the flats below the Anaconda smelter stack, the blowouts that still corrupt rivers and water tables.
At what ultimate cost, I finally wondered, have we held so fiercely to this antique law, dreaming the long dream of treasure that I once saluted with such enthusiasm?