Photo: Dumping waste rock

Trucks the size of houses dump 200-ton loads of waste rock, 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.

Photograph by Peter Essick

Written by T.H. Watkins

Republished from the pages of National Geographic magazine

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.

More than a century ago miners sent water racing down the Sierra through networks of ditches and wooden flumes. The water, building pressure with every mile (1.6 kilometers), funneled into huge nozzles and from them struck the ancient slopes of the foothills with such terrible force that they dissolved into mud that oozed like surging lava over wooden riffles. 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.

Such unregulated destruction is no longer permitted in the United States. 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.

The law was designed to promote and codify the use of public lands for mining purposes, and in its major provisions it did so with admirable simplicity. It declares all federal land not otherwise restricted, as in national parks and other reservations, be open to the prospecting and discovery of gold, silver, copper, iron, nickel, and other hardrock minerals.

Under the 1872 law miners can stake a lode claim to an underground ore body or stake a placer claim, where loose minerals are worked at the surface. 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.

Others consider the law a malevolent antique that destroys the environment and robs the taxpayer as well. 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.

Even in the West the industry the law supports is facing increasing opposition. Responding to an initiative promoted by the Montana Environmental Information Center and other regional conservation organizations, the citizens of Montana have voted to impose a ban on new or expanded open-pit, cyanide-leach mining in their state.

Local disaffection is echoed in some federal agencies. 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 "an obscene example of corporate welfare."

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.

There was little to stop the miners and no overall mining law to guide them until 1866. Claims were jumped and blood occasionally flowed. But chaos could not be tolerated for long, not when big money was to be made on public lands. So, at the behest of the mining industry and western lawmakers, Congress supplemented its earlier statutes, described by one historian as "an empty vessel," by enacting the General Mining Law on May 10, 1872.

So what's wrong with this historically inevitable and eminently lucid law? Very little, say modern miners. "If the law is reformed, the real losers will be the American people," says Mike Miller, president of the Original Sixteen to One Mine in the Sierra foothills. "The mining law fed the dream of what American symbolized— being able to go out and stake your claim, work hard, and find success. Reform would take away your right, my right, my children's right to go out into godforsaken, wonderful land, stake a claim, and pursue it."

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. "A poor man has poor ways," he says. "We had to go out single-jacking with a piece of steel. You hit and turn, hit and turn till you got a hole in the rock to put down the dynamite. Take you hours just to get 5 or 6 inches (13 or 15 centimeters). Course, some men made money, but we didn't. The little man didn't have much of a chance. Doesn't now. The mining is gone for the little man. It's all for the companies now."

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. "We've found 311 dead birds so far this spring," Dan Audet, a field manager for the USFWS, told me. "What bothers us is that this recent die-off is the largest in this area since the 1950s."

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 here.

The river runs cleaner these days, partly because remedial measures have been taken but also because most of the mines, mills, and the lead smelter have shut down entirely. Still, the river remains badly contaminated. When streams flood, then recede, they leave poisoned sediments behind, raising soil contamination to dangerous levels. 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).

Part of the region lies within the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation. 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.

Across the mountains in Montana, I found a legacy of contamination continuing at the point where the Blackfoot River joins the Clark Fork River just above Missoula. Here begins the Upper Clark Fork Basin Superfund complex, the largest Superfund cleanup effort in America. 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.

ARCO bought the Anaconda operation in 1977, but after copper prices slipped, it sold off some of its holdings and shut down the rest. Still, it was ARCO that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now expected to pay for the cleanup. A big job. 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 zinc.

The three mineral-related Superfund sites in the basin were designated in 1983. 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. "At this point," Sandra Stash, ARCO's environmental manager, told me, "we are more than 300 million dollars into the cleanup and expect it will be a couple of hundred million more by the time we're done." 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.

What I saw in Anaconda is not unique. No less deadly consequences of the General Mining Law's failure to address environmental concerns can be found all over the West. There are about 30 hardrock mining and mineral processing sites in the West that have made the EPA's Superfund list, and no one I talked with suggested that the reclamation work done, being done, or about to be done at these sites is ever likely to be truly complete.

Even more sobering is the fact that the EPA's Superfund list does not include some 16,000 abandoned mining sites—again, all but a fraction of them on General Mining Law claims—that pose serious water contamination problems, but where spades may never be turned in the name of reclamation. If spades ever do get turned, the cleanup cost will be astronomical.

In order to pay for effective reclamation, reformers would establish a royalty system similar to that which has been in effect for coal, oil, and gas resources on the public lands for 80 years. Many environmental groups, such as the Mineral Policy Center, favor an 8 percent royalty on the "net smelter value"—the value of the mineral after milling and processing (the royalty for coal, oil, and gas range from 8 percent to 16 percent). 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.

Most miners say such reforms would be misguided overkill. 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. "You can't mine except where God and nature put the minerals," Miller said. "You can't go out and run a gold mine anywhere but where there is an economical gold deposit." Miller also insisted that any kind of royalty would "kill the little guys and the independent operators."

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.

Only last fall, however, a report to Congress from the National Research Council faulted federal land managers for inadequately enforcing regulations. Among other recommendations in the report, the council's Committee on Hardrock Mining urged the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service to improve their oversight of mining companies' permit compliance.

In its effort to deflect major regulatory change, the industry often cites Homestake's McLaughlin gold mine near Lower Lake, California, to demonstrate the extent to which miners have mended their ways. The mine is featured in TV ads. This is gold mining today, the ads proclaim—beautiful hills, waving fields of grass, prancing mule deer, a glimmering lake. 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.

Clearly it is state-of-the-art reclamation, the McLaughlin, and kudos for it have included a commendation from the Sierra Club. What he was doing here, Krauss told me, made perfect business sense too. "When you look at the total environmental cost, it is roughly 2 percent of our capital cost for the whole project. We want to protect our stockholder’s investment. Creating an environmental liability doesn't serve their interests or ours."

"The McLaughlin is pretty good," concedes Steve D'Esposito, executive director of the Mineral Policy Center, "but it's hardly typical. While many mines do perform a lot of reclamation work, I don't know of another operation that goes as far as the McLaughlin. Some mines ignore or subvert the law. Some are just incompetent."

As evidence, reformers point to a number of dramatic modern failures: The Phelps Dodge Mining Corporation's Chino copper mine near Santa Rita, New Mexico, for example, where spills, leaks, and other unlawful discharges have dumped more than 180 million gallons (681 million liters) of contaminated wastewater into Whitewater Creek since 1987. Or the Ray Complex in Arizona, where in 1990 rainwater flushed some 324,000 gallons (1.2 million liters) of wastewater loaded with copper sulfates into the Gila River. Or the Summitville gold mine in southern Colorado, operated by a Canadian corporation. Touted from the beginning as a model for what modern mining could do, it had hardly opened for business in 1986 before it began leaking cyanide, acid, and heavy metals into the Alamosa River, poisoning some 17 miles (28 kilometers) of the stream. The company declared bankruptcy in 1992, the EPA took the mine over as yet another Superfund site, and the U.S. Justice Department has had no luck getting Canadian courts to freeze the company's assets for reimbursement of the hundred million dollars already spent to try to clean up the mess.

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.

If there is a center for the open-pit, heap-leach gold mining industry, it would be northern Nevada. Since 1990 Nevada has disgorged nearly 22 billion dollars in gold, producing 70 percent of U.S. output and ranking Nevada—if it were a separate nation—third in worldwide production. The bulk of it has come out of the northern portion of the state, where mining is to many towns what gambling is to Las Vegas.

Nowhere is this more true than in Winnemucca, a town of 8,300 people along I-80 and the Humboldt River. Mining is not the only industry in the area, but it is far and away the biggest. There are 19 operating mines in the Winnemucca region, and 12 of them are producing gold (several also produce silver). Mining directly accounts for more than 3,500 jobs in the region. "Our town has just about doubled in population over the past 12 years or so, primarily because of the mining industry," city manager Steve West told me last summer. "As a result we've been able to do a lot of nice things for our community—our infrastructure, our parks, our water system."

West is no fan of mining reform. "It could cost a lot of us our jobs. What it would do is push the industry overseas or to South America. There's no doubt about it." Besides, he added, "I don't think these mines are having a major impact on the environment."

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. "But now, so much water is being discharged into the river from mining operations that the river runs high into October. Farmers can't get to their irrigation works to repair and maintain them in the fall, like they used to. Some of the alfalfa fields are getting saturated." Still, he emphasized, "I don't want to see any more mines close down in Humboldt County. Planned shutdowns because of declining ore resources are one thing, but if someone passes a law that makes mining unprofitable all of a sudden, that's hard on an economy like ours."

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. "The hope is always there that the mines will remain viable and the price of gold will go back up," Milton said. "Most people don't think past that. But in reality the life of mines is shorter now than two years ago, all because of the drop in prices."

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.

Thirty years ago I wrote a history of gold and silver mining in the American West. There was much in that book that celebrated mining's importance to the opening of the West and its colorful history and folklore. Driving out of Winnemucca the day after Placer Dome's layoffs, I wondered if I had said enough in that history about the transient nature of the business, the folly of trying to build an economy on the exploitation of finite precious metals whose value is entirely abstract and dependent on the whims of nations. 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.

After the flight I had coffee in the Elko airport with my fellow observer Glenn Miller, a professor of environmental and resource sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno, and a founder of Great Basin Mine Watch, a grassroots organization devoted to monitoring the effects of mine development. "The mines down there," he said, "are going to have a substantial impact on the groundwater system in the Humboldt River Basic because of the amount of water they're pumping out of the pits in order to keep they dry. Over the next ten years we figure it will create a groundwater deficit in the Humboldt River Basin equal to 20 years of the total flow of the Humboldt River at Winnemucca. And once the cost of mining and pumping the water exceeds the value of the ore, the companies will say 'That's it' and stop the pumps. That means groundwater will flow into the pits and create lakes. Many, if not most will be so contaminated the water will be unfit for human consumption or agriculture."

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?

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