Mind your mines

We turn off Highway 50, a few miles west of Ely, and wind our way up a freshly graded dirt road. We park on the shoulder to get a good look at the Robinson Mine’s open pit.

“It’s huge,” my daughter says. “Like a big zit that popped—and now there’s a pit on the face of the planet.”

“The pit’s not as big as I remember,” I tell my teens, who’re traveling across the state with me. “But I haven’t seen it in a while.”

In 2005, Quadra Mining Ltd. reopened this mine in the eastern Nevada town of Ruth. In two years of operations, the Robinson Mine produced 236 million pounds of copper, 166,055 ounces of gold and 260,000 pounds of molybdenum, a silvery metal with a melting point of 2623° C, coveted for aircraft parts.

I shoot photos with my digital camera through a cyclone fence.

An open-pit mine possesses a disturbing beauty—stunning, canyon-like views with raw gashes of minerals in brilliant rust, silvery white and sea green. The Silver State produces more gold than any other U.S. state. Last year, $3.8 billion in gold was pulled from Nevada’s bowels, up about $750 million from 2005.

Demand increases. Prices rise. Nevada mines boom. The fault lies with technology. Precious metals are used in electronic circuitry for cell phones, iPods, computers and digital cameras. Gold connects circuits to semiconductors and forms the paste for printed circuit boards. The keys on which I will type these words will strike gold circuits sending my pithy thoughts to a microprocessor.

Congress took up the issue of hard-rock mining reform this month—for the first time in a couple of decades. Rep. Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat, wants to update the Mining Law of 1872, intended to encourage westward expansion. The 135-year-old law allowed individuals wielding pickaxes to lease public land and extract minerals without paying royalties.

Now those same rights extend to multi-national corporations. Rahall noted that the government has given away more than $245 billion worth of mineral reserves through patenting or royalty-free mining through the 1872 law.

“For over 100 years, private mining companies have gotten away with a land grab that has robbed American taxpayers of fair royalties for these precious minerals,” said Earthjustice legislative associate Sara Tucker.

The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2007 would establish an 8 percent net smelter return royalty on gold, copper and silver. The bill identifies federal lands off-limits to mining and creates new reclamation rules.

Chances it’ll pass this year? Don’t bet on it.

In Nevada, state legislators last week approved AB 115, which requires mining companies to fund two new mercury emission regulators at the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection. Reports from monitoring at five large mines showed three kinds of mercury coming out of smokestacks.

Amount of mercury Nevada mines are allowed to emit legally: Zero. Nada. None. Mercury collects in streams and rivers. It accumulates in fish. It can cause birth defects and madness.

My teenagers don’t say much as they observe the Robinson Mine. Pressed for a description, my son, 16, says: “It’s like God took a shovel to scoop up some precious metals.”

The way he says “precious” reminds me of Gollum from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

My daughter, 18, checks her phone messages. She’s waiting to hear from a potential employer about a job. After spotty cell phone coverage across most of Nevada, we’re getting strong signals here, thanks to the folks at Quadra.

“If it isn’t grown,” I say, reciting the bumper sticker slogan, “it has to be mined.”

We walk back to our car.