Cyanide flush

Mines spill yucky stuff in the desert. They say they clean the spills up. Who’s making sure?

On May 2, 1997, cyanide solution poured out of this pipe, shown here in a 1997 NDEP video, and into the desert near Golconda.

On May 2, 1997, cyanide solution poured out of this pipe, shown here in a 1997 NDEP video, and into the desert near Golconda.

It’s not trickling, but it’s not gushing, either. Cyanide solution pours out a pipe and down a mountainous heap of ore. A gully forms along the side of the heap, then the stream continues down the road and into the desert. It enters a pond, fills it, and then flows down into another and another. It saturates the valley.

The miner uses a flashlight to inspect the damage. He walks out into the sagebrush swamp. The ground is wet for as far as he can see.

“That’s when I really knew we had a problem.”

It’s a nice drive to the east side of Twin Creeks Mine. The operation now owned by Newmont Mining Corp. is near Golconda, Nev., about three hours northeast of Reno. Greg “Bo” Bennett, a former Twin Creeks Mine shift foreman, and his wife made the drive on Memorial Day this year. Bennett was in the mood to remember an event that ended his mining career four years ago.

On May 2, 1997, thousands of gallons of cyanide solution used to leach gold from crushed rocks were flushed into the desert. The mine reported 8,100 gallons. But Bennett argues it was much more—maybe 80,000 gallons.

He can’t really prove how much cyanide left the Twin Creek mine that day. Regardless, it wasn’t even the biggest cyanide spill in history. In southwest Utah, at the East Fork of Beaver Dam Wash, some four million gallons of cyanide process solution was once accidentally dumped.

But Bennett, who worked at Twin Creeks for eight years, can’t let it go. Since mines are responsible to report their own chemical spills, it’s important that someone hold them accountable, he said.

“This is our land,” Bennett said. “But everywhere I’ve been, everyone says, ‘So what?’ It’s all a bunch of hooey.”

What irked Bennett was the degree to which he felt the spill was underreported by his supervisors. He’d been there. He’d seen how far the solution traveled, how it filled up four ponds—two of them were pretty voluminous—in the desert. His employers didn’t address his early complaints about the environmental release report. And when he wouldn’t agree to let the matter go, he ended up without a job. That was four years ago.

Bennett was sure someone would care enough to at least look into the possibility of an underreported cyanide spill. He started making phone calls. The Nevada Department of Environmental Protection inspected the spill scene six weeks after the fact. And the department, which didn’t do soil or water testing, relied on the mine’s account of what happened to make their own report.

Bennett began to lose faith.

“If you ask somebody, they’ll say I’m just a disgruntled employee,” Bennett said. “The story is not well-received around here. Nobody wants to touch this.”

On May 2, 1997, Bennett said he first heard about solution gushing down the road when he came into work that day at about 5 p.m. So Bennett sent a worker down to check it out. The worker didn’t find any signs of the spill. Bennett went to see for himself. He found the river of cyanide coming from a pipe “going full-blast” hanging off the side of an ore heap. He couldn’t get the valve shut, so he did the next best thing.

“I pushed the pipe back onto the heap, thinking at least the solution will stop going down the road,” Bennett said. He followed the flow 1,500 feet down the road and then down another 1,000 feet where there was no more road. Then he looked around. About an acre was saturated, he said.

“I walked out into it,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘This is big.’ When I got back, I spoke to the heap operator. He said, ‘Man, I hope that’s not the heap we started flushing yesterday, because I didn’t go down there today. If it is, we’ve got hell to pay.'”

Bennett sent a worker to the area for a test. Bad news. The liquid filling ponds in the desert was the cyanide solution used to leach gold from the ground-up rock.

Bennett filled out a report listing the release time: “Found at 8 p.m.” The release duration: “4 to 30 hours.” The quantity released: “10,000 to 90,000 gallons.” There was a line on the form that asked: “Did the material reach a waterway, drainage or pond?” Bennett left that blank. That much solution, he thought, would make its way into a dry waterway, Rabbit Creek. And it had been a wet season. But he’d leave that to the higher-ups.

“I told [my supervisors], ‘Listen, I made a preliminary report. You do whatever you want.’ I knew they were going to lowball it.”

He asked if he should get started cleaning it up. He offered to gather some equipment, though that would slow production.

“My supervisor said, ‘Don’t clean it up now. We’ll do it tomorrow,’ “ Bennett said. When he came back the next day, a truck was pumping water out of one pond. He calculated that at least 12,000 gallons had been removed.

“That was the last time I saw it.”

Forget the stereotypical prospector with pick and shovel. Those old-time gold mines in which gold could be chiseled from the rock are extinct.

But there’s plenty of the soft, yellow stuff out there—in tinier amounts. And savvy miners have worked long and hard to figure out a few great ways to get the gold out of them thar hills.

Usually, you have to grind up the rocks. Not just a few rocks. More like hundreds of millions of tons of rocks. A productive mining area yields between .015 and .1 ounces of gold for every ton of rocks. Newmont mining operations in Nevada last year produced three million ounces of gold.

Chemicals are used to get the gold out of the chewed-up rock. At Twin Creeks, ore is ground into gravel and piled up in a heap as high as an eight-story building.

In the dump leach areas of Twin Creeks, a diluted cyanide solution is sprayed onto these heaps. Under the heap is a liner that funnels the cyanide solution to a process pond. After it’s been through the rock, the solution is “pregnant” with gold—and may contain other toxic chemicals, like mercury and arsenic.

Zero discharge. That’s what mines have to agree to in order to obtain a water pollution control permit in Nevada.

“You can’t release a solution,” explained Dan Tecca, an environmental scientist for the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s a closed-loop system. All liners, all ponds, all buildings have to meet secondary containment designs [to guard against leaks.]”

Still, spills aren’t “terribly unusual,” Tecca said.

In less than a decade, Nevada mines have reported 1,116 spills. Of these, 271 contained cyanide. The average cyanide spill was 28,751 gallons, according to a hazardous mining spills report completed in 2000 by the Mineral Policy Center and Great Basin Mine Watch.

Even though many mines have closed and gold production is dropping, the number of spills hasn’t been significantly decreasing, the report said.

Responding to spills promptly and thoroughly is important at Newmont Mining Corp., said Louis Schack, a Newmont communications representative.

A Twin Creeks Mine worker samples pond contents in this 1997 video from the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection.

“Any spill is more than we would like to see,” Schack said. “We take these things very seriously.”

Any spills—whether cyanide or even water—of more than 500 gallons need to be reported within 24 hours, Tecca said. Other spills are reported quarterly. The mines themselves are in charge of all of this reporting. To get the permit, a mine must provide the state with an emergency response plan describing all types of contaminants on the property and what activities—like excavation and water or soil sampling—would be undertaken in the event of a spill.

The NDEP inspects each mine in Nevada, usually with advance notice, about four times a year.

“Thou shalt not degrade the waters of the state,” Tecca said.

Does the system work?

That depends on whom you ask.

Rancher Richard Harrington bought a farm in Golconda not far from the Old Getchell Mine in 1970. Back then, the mine wasn’t too active. Then two more mines opened in the 1980s. Harrington’s little cattle ranch was down in a valley below all three operations.

“I was in a really vulnerable area … on a creek that drained run-off from the mines during snow melts,” he said. Actually, the polluted water wasn’t as hard to live with as the crummy air. One mine cooked ore in giant autoclaves that gave off fumes with all the right ingredients to make sulfuric acid.

“The mist would drift down and, at night, the air settled into the lower part of the valley there. We had to stay in the house. I experienced terrible things.”

Harrington complained to the state’s environmental commission.

“But they seemed to be a facilitator to keep mines operating, like an extension of mines rather than agencies designed to protect the environment,” Harrington said.

After repeated hearings in which Harrington attempted to get someone to take a look at the mines near his ranch, he gave up. He accepted some money from the mines and moved to Oregon, where he enjoys “lots of water and a beautiful climate.” When he agreed to the buyout in 1991, he also agreed not to reveal the terms of the settlement.

“What really needs to be done is someone needs to investigate the [environmental agencies],” Harrington said. “But [mining is] a lot of tax money and jobs for Nevada. So why would anybody want to come in and shut it down?”

If you factor in the long-term environmental consequences of not making sure that mines follow environmental regulations, he said, Nevada loses out in the long run.

“Nevada is kind of a strange state,” Harrington said. “You’ve got gambling, mining and ranching, which is a long, sustained thing. The mines are in and out in 20 years. What they leave will be there forever. That’s the sad part.”

Bennett took a complaint of unfair labor practices under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court. He lost every time. He filed his latest complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor, arguing that his “protected” status as a kind of whistleblower led to his loss of a job.

Newmont was less than prepared to mess around with this case again. The week before the May hearing, attorney David Farber, a partner with Newmont’s Washington, D.C., firm Patton Boggs LLP, tried to contact Judge Richard Avery for a continuance. But Avery was on a cattle drive to kick off the Reno Rodeo.

Farber, who also represented Newmont in the MSHA proceedings, specializes in environmental law. He’s co-written numerous articles on the subject. Though he wasn’t especially prepared for the hearing, he had flown in from the East Coast and hated to waste a trip.

“Since we’re here, let’s see where we are at the end of the day,” said the Georgetown University graduate.

Though Bennett is no student of law—he dropped out of high school in California but later received his GED—he had prepared opening statements and piles of evidence for the judge to consider.

Avery reminded Bennett that the size of the cyanide spill wasn’t something he’s interested in. Avery’s sole interest was to determine whether Bennett lost his job as retribution for engaging in a protected activity.

It was a hard case for Bennett to make. For one thing, there’s a statute of limitations.

“Mr. Bennett has missed the deadline to file this complaint by four years,” Farber said.

For another thing, the Twin Creeks human resource department tried to get Bennett to come back to work. He wasn’t fired, they said. When Bennett stopped coming to work, his supervisor called it vacation time. Finally, after talking with Bennett and sending letters back and forth, Bennett was told that if he didn’t show up for work in early June—more than a month after the spill—they’d have to say he voluntarily quit.

Why didn’t Bennett go back to work?

Bennett said that, after a heated confrontation, his supervisor told him to leave on May 9, 1997—coincidentally, the day that Newmont took the reins of Twin Creek Mine from Santa Fe Pacific Gold Corp.

He saw being told to “just go home” as the beginning of the end.

“There I am clomping down the road in my rubber work boots,” he said. “I was 46 years old and hitchhiking home. That’s a big event.”

The mine did try to get him to come back, he said, but they wouldn’t talk with him about the report discrepancy. That, on top of several other health issues he had with the mine, like mercury vapor inhalation, was the final straw, he said.

The miner and the Washington lawyer called their witnesses.

Process operator John Jaccard, the Twin Creeks employee who signed the spill report, said he vaguely remembered talking to Bennett about when the valve was turned on at the heap. It was, in fact, turned on at 3:30 p.m. May 1. But he reported a spill only about two hours long based on when it was discovered and when the flow was stopped.

“Where did you get that information, John?” Bennett asked.

“Well, from you, I think,” Jaccard answered. “That’s the known time that the solution was released.”

Is this water or a cyanide solution that has collected in this unlined desert pond, shown in a 1997 NDEP video?

Jaccard calculated the amount of the spill by multiplying the speed at which the solution was coming out of the pipe (60 gallons per minute, he said) by what he called the known release time. How’d he know how fast the solution was coming out of the pipe? He measured it with a five-gallon bucket, he said.

Jaccard added that another worker making his rounds in mid-afternoon hadn’t noticed any spillage.

Bennett’s former supervisor Cindy Jones took the stand and talked about months of disputes with Bennett over, among other things, another spill report in January 1997. In that report, Bennett listed a spill of a relatively small amount of water. Jones changed Bennett’s report to say that the release included cyanide. Jones didn’t tell Bennett she changed it. When he found out, he was furious. The report that he considered inaccurate had his signature on it.

“Your word is your bond,” Bennett said.

Then, after the May 2 spill—even after an e-mail from Bennett in which he told Jones that she could report the spill however she wanted to—he became upset when he found the actual report. His frustration fueled the May 9 dispute.

“He kept saying he hurt his back,” she said. “He felt like the company owned him. He wanted out. But he wanted to go with some money. … The meeting got very heated. I had to remove myself. I said, ‘If you want to go, go.’ “

Jones wasn’t firing Bennett. She didn’t have the authority to do so. Later that afternoon, she called Bennett at home to recommend that he visit a doctor.

Though the spill cleanup should have begun the night of May 2, Jones said that it didn’t begin until the next morning. The NDEP, in its investigation, chewed the mine out for that. Guzzler trucks came in and pumped solution out of ponds. Someone from the mine took water samples. The NDEP expressed confidence in the mine’s sampling procedures.

“All the soil was checked and stuff,” Tecca said in a later phone interview. He was with the team that inspected the spill four years ago. “We did a calculation using the time frames and the volume we saw. The spill couldn’t have varied a hundred gallons [from the reported quantity].”

If mines don’t follow their emergency response plans to respond to and contain a spill, they can be fined up to $25,000 per day per contaminant.

But all this sampling was done four years ago. If Twin Creeks Mine kept the sample results, they don’t have them now. When Bennett tried to subpoena the information, Farber said that the mine doesn’t have it.

“You have all the information we have,” Farber told Bennett during the hearing.

It’s easy to characterize Bennett as a disgruntled employee trying to get a few bucks in back pay from Newmont. It’s also easy to dismiss him as paranoid. He’s stubborn. He’s pretty sure that the mines, the environmental agencies and the attorney general’s office are in cahoots.

But Bennett’s story has many credible moments. An increase in cyanide found in the water table near the Twin Creeks Mine may be evidence that some large spills have taken place in the area.

“It’s gone up … and that could collaborate what Bennett is saying,” said Tom Myers of Great Basin Mine Watch, referencing a Twin Creeks Mine water study done in 2000 and financed by Newmont. Since cyanide breaks down quickly after it hits the open air, it takes quite a drenching for the chemical to make it down to the water table, Myers said.

Cyanide was first detected in a monitoring well in 1995. Cyanide was detected in two wells by 1998. The amounts of cyanide are low—from .02 to .03 milligrams per liter—well under environmental standards. But that’s not the point. If cyanide is being found where there was none, then the zero-release concept is failing.

A video of the NDEP’s spill investigation in June 1997 also seemed to give some credence to Bennett’s claim. Bennett first saw the video in March at the NDEP office in Carson City. He brought his camcorder and made a copy of the video as it played. Bennett’s copy shows investigators walking along the spill’s path. Four bodies of water are shown, and two of these are large enough to hold hundreds of thousands of gallons.

When Myers saw Bennett’s video, he said the spill could have been even bigger than what Bennett claims. Solution can come out of pipes at 1,000 to 1,500 gallons per minute. But even if it were much slower, like 450 gallons per minute, in a three-hour period, 81,000 gallons would be released. In a 30-hour period, that would be 810,000 gallons.

The video showed mine workers taking water samples from the ponds. But without the results of those tests, it’d be hard to say whether the ponds were filled with cyanide solution or rainwater.

Golconda did get about .3 inches of rain the day before the May 2 spill. In June, the area got another two inches of rain. About half of that rain fell before the NDEP arrived to take a look at the area. But Bennett noted that the road, in the video, is dry. If you had big ponds from recent precipitation, the ground would probably still be muddy, he said.

Self-reporting of hazardous spills by the mines is akin to self-reporting of income by citizens to the Internal Revenue Service, said Bill Frey, a Nevada deputy attorney general.

“Almost everything is done by self-reporting,” he said. “You have to assume that at some level, people do the right things. Otherwise, we’d need a cop for every human being alive.”

Frey said that, in the end, the size of the Twin Creeks spill on May 2 didn’t really matter. As long as the mine cleaned it up, all would be OK.

“At the end of the day, if it was 8,000 or 80,000 gallons and nothing had been done, then there’d be a problem. But something was done. As I recall, two guys went out to investigate it, and they were satisfied the right thing had been done.”

Self-reporting is all well and good. But even the IRS surprises taxpayers with audits now and then. Myers of Great Basin Mine Watch thinks the same should go for mines.

And with big spills, the NDEP should be on site in eight hours or so to make sure cleanup efforts are moving along. It’d help, Myers said, if the NDEP had offices in Winnemucca and Elko.

“They should show up unannounced. That’s something they rarely do,” Myers said. “We need that kind of oversight.”

Bennett expects Judge Avery’s decision on his complaint soon. In the interim, he said he’s finally satisfied that his case has been heard.

“Regardless of what happens, if [Avery] finds against me, I’m done,” Bennett said. “Because I think it was fair.”

Bennett recently showed the video he made to the folks at the Bureau of Land Management office in Winnemucca.

The BLM may consider doing soil tests, said Janet Hook, BLM geologist.

“We were thinking about it just to see what’s there,” Hook said. “We’re still debating what we’d look for.”

By now, cyanide would be broken down. But evidence of other contaminants like arsenic or mercury may still be found in the soil. That could add credibility to Bennett’s story.

In the end, the unemployed miner said he just wants what he’s wanted all along—someone to pay attention to his story.

“I’m going to be 50 years old next month. I’ve got to find work, but I’m pretty much blackballed in this area," he said. "When I got into this fight, I was blown away that they could do anything they want. … People have to be responsible to report factually. They have to be held accountable."