Mining the inner workings
Feeling in need of community validation, Newmont Mining Corp. seeks reputation reclamation
Garbed in lightweight silver—a heat-proof, fire-proof mail of sorts—the refinery worker opens the furnace to drain the slag. A thin orange stream falls from the furnace into a thick black cone. When a ribbon of glowing yellow appears, he stops the flow and rolls over a tray with a large loaf mold.
He tips the furnace and pours the molten metal, making a bar of doré gold, unrefined gold bullion.
The furnace is hot—2,200 degrees Fahrenheit or so. I’m tempted to describe the sight as “unearthly.” But this stuff comes from rocky deposits under the alluvial soil of the Great Basin, northeast of Winnemucca. What goes into this furnace is a fine brown powder the color of cocoa. Its radiance is only evident now, near the end of a process that involves carefully managed explosions, a deep clawing into the surface of the Earth with immense machinery and toxic chemicals used to extract a valuable product from the earth’s crust.
“Mining works for Nevada,” goes the slogan of the Nevada Mining Association, and this is what I have in mind during a day-long tour of Twin Creeks Mine, owned by Newmont Mining Corp. Newmont’s Nevada operation is the largest gold producer in the United States. Its nine open-pit and five underground mines sold 2.7 million ounces of gold in 2001.
Newmont-style mining hasn’t worked for everyone. In June, two former environmental specialists from Newmont’s Lone Tree gold mine filed a lawsuit against the corporation, charging that it had misled state regulators about issues at Lone Tree. After reporting such environmental infractions as arsenic releases from a cooling pond, a lack of required sediment controls, polluted water in a pit lake, air pollution and failure to clean up acidic drainage from mining tailings, former environmental specialists Sandra Ainsworth and Rebecca Sawyer say they were fired.
Newmont reps contend that the women lost their jobs during corporate downsizing.
Two years ago, I wrote a story about Greg “Bo” Bennett, a former Twin Creeks shift foreman who’d been so adamant about the size of a cyanide solution spill from a leach pad at Twin Creeks that he could no longer reconcile himself to working for the company.
Bennett said he was sure that tens of thousands of gallons of cyanide solution had accidentally been released into the desert one night in 1997. The company reported the accidental spill had involved about 8,000 gallons of solution. When Bennett took an unlawful-termination suit to court, a judge ruled in favor of the mining company.
My tour guide is Louis Schack, who does communications and external public relations for Newmont. Schack and I were classmates at UNR’s Reynolds School of Journalism, and we worked together at the student newspaper, the Sagebrush.
Schack seems confident that Newmont does good stuff. The company recently donated $2.5 million to UNR’s Mackay School of Mines to fund research and faculty positions. It committed $250,000 to Great Basin College to fund campus housing.
While we drive to and from Golconda in a blue Ford Expedition, Schack talks of overseas mining—the company does its best, he says, to balance the needs of the people in impoverished nations with its own needs to create profitable safe mines run by skilled workers—and local commitment to reclamation. Besides the work being done at the mines themselves, Newmont (also Nevada’s largest cattle rancher!) has worked to restore overgrazed riparian areas near streams. In some areas, like Maggie Creek, the company has banned grazing “forever.”
“The streams are coming back there,” Schack says, “and the native Lahontan cutthroat trout are thriving.”
A motionless calf lies in the ditch along the road to Twin Creeks. Its mom stands nearby. Schack is upset.
“That sucks,” he says. “This is all open range, so it’s unavoidable, but still. People drive too fast.”
We arrive at headquarters and hunker down for a deluge of mining facts.
I meet Gary Dowdle, mining manager; Bill Janhonen, general foreman; Dave Hawkins, mining engineer; Doug Barto, environmental manager; and Patty Herzog, who does community outreach. Mining works for these people.
We talk about employment and gold reserves. The downsizing of about 900 employees after several mergers in recent years has not diminished productivity, Schack says, as the company looked for innovative ways to combine jobs and departments to improve efficiency. Employment at Newmont has remained “fairly stable” since 2000.
We talk about reclamation and the use of 50 tons, so far, of waste rock to backfill the midsection of Twin Creek’s gargantuan pit. The pit’s diameter is about three miles. Another 100 tons of waste will be backfilled into the pit as miners make three more cuts through the end of the pit dubbed Section 30. Plans for Section 30 span the next five years—and the area looks promising, Hawkins says.
We talk about public perception—and how important it is to the folks at Newmont.
A mining company can make all the right moves with government regulatory agencies, but the company also needs what Barto calls a “social license” from the public.
“You know the kitty litter mine?” he says. “Those folks didn’t get granted their social license. … We need to be perceived as beneficial to the community, or we don’t have a social license. We can have all the permits we need, but if we don’t have the permission of the community, it means nothing.”
Next, we attend a gold pour. I walk through a metal detector into the furnace room where the gold is being cooked. Eight 50- or 60-pound loaves of doré gold are poured. Each loaf—about 80 percent gold and 17 percent silver—is worth $200,000 to $250,000. These are shipped out of the mine by armored truck and sold to refineries that process gold to a purity of 99.999 percent.
We drive to the top of a pit where ore is being blasted out of the earth. The manmade canyon descends thousands of feet in increments of 20-foot benches, like a terraced ziggurat (an ancient Babylonian temple) hollowed and turned upside down. Workers nearly too small to see have drilled holes and placed dynamite in them. A horn blasts, giving a three-minute warning.
Like lightning, I see the effects of the blast, a far-off cloud of black dust, a second or two before I hear the boom.
We drive to the bottom of a pit, get out of the Expedition and look up. Rock from the mid-pit backfill has cascaded from the top of the pit, creating a tapered wall that looks a bit like Hoover Dam.
To keep a pit this deep—far below the water table—empty, mines pump the water from the surrounding area. The water taken from the pits is used in other parts of the mine, for processing and keeping dust down on the road. Some is discharged back into the Humboldt River—which Schack says “needs all the water it can get lately"—at a rate of about 1,000 gallons per minute in the summer. Dewatering efforts end when the mining ends. Twin Creeks’ two pits (with the pile of backfill in the middle) will fill and become, on the north end, a 500-foot deep lake with a surface area of 110 acres and, on the south end, an 800-foot deep lake that spans 210 acres. It will take 50 years for the lakes to reach about 80 or 90 percent of their final depth. And this won’t affect area groundwater supplies or dry up local streams, Schack says.
Backfilling the middle of the pit should improve the chemical balance of the water, Hawkins says, discussing the balancing of sulfides that drop the Ph balance of the water and carbonates that raise it. And though some pit lakes have less-than-healthful water, Newmont has put up a reclamation bond—placing its theoretical money on the line—to ensure that it monitors the pit lake until it reaches environmental standards.
Some environmental groups have complained that corporate bonds aren’t enough surety to adequately protect Nevadans in the event of, say, a mine’s bankruptcy. A bill that would have stiffened the bonding process for mining companies, however, didn’t make it through the recent legislative session.
Newmont, however, claims no concerns about bankruptcy.
“We’re doing better than ever,” Schack says, citing a recent three-way merger with Normandy Mining Ltd. and Franco-Nevada Mining Corp. of Canada that gave Newmont a much-needed infusion of operating capital. “It was a good merger for us, and it just happened to coincide with gold prices going up.”
Barto worked at Lone Tree Mine, but he started there after Ainsworth and Sawyer had left. He says he’s confident that Newmont’s commitment to the environment is solid.
“It’s good,” he says. “A lot of planning goes into this.”
Schack reiterates that the women were not fired, but rather laid off when their positions were eliminated.
“They were offered nice severance packages, but they refused them,” he says. “Over the next several months, they issued a series of demands for a settlement.”
And what of allegations that Newmont stalled an investigation by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection? On Sept. 18, 2002, NDEP investigators contacted Newmont, asking to interview six employees the next day. After the first employee interview, Newmont officials refused further interviews—for about two months.
“We asked them for a clear procedure [regarding the interviews],” Schack says. Newmont was merely seeking “to protect the rights” of its employees, he says, because those who do environmental work are “potentially liable for any findings of poor practices.”
Investigators were unable to substantiate most of the women’s complaints.
“The NDEP didn’t find any merit to their claims, except for a few things that we were already working to resolve,” Schack says.
A copy of the investigative report obtained by the Associated Press said that the integrity of the findings may have been compromised by the two-month wait.
“Although ultimately NDEP did interview all of the people we were interested in, the investigation was delayed by two months,” the report, as quoted by the AP, said. “Consequently, [we] lost the element of surprise, which is often times critical in an investigation.”
I tour a mill where rocks are crushed in a series of mills, the first of which boasts a 4,000-horsepower engine. The finely ground rock is heated and cooled and mixed with chemicals into a slurry that looks like a vat of rich melted chocolate.
We also stop at a leach pad on which is piled a neat mountain of ore. Newmont has about three active leach pads, Schack says, where a dilute cyanide solution—about a tenth of a percent or less—slowly percolates through the low-grade ore, absorbing gold as it works its way through the crushed rock. This is the cheapest mode of processing ore—it costs only about a buck a ton, but then there’s only about .02 ounces of gold per ton of rock. Leach pads are quickly becoming a thing of the past, Schack says, as deposits of this type of ore become rarer.
Is this the place where Bo Bennett complained of hundreds of thousands of gallons of cyanide solution leaking onto the desert? It might be, Schack says. He stresses that the solution is dilute—and the ponds where the solution pooled in the desert were created to capture the spill and clean it up.
When about 70 percent of the gold has been recovered from the ore atop a leach pad, the rock pile is “encapsulated,” then reseeded with native vegetation. The goal of all reclamation is to get the land back in working order for future generations.
Barto takes us to a dump of waste rock, where bulldozers have been used to recreate the natural lay of the land.
“There’s a little bit of green here, mostly weeds, but it’s a good sign,” Barto says. “If weeds will grow, then other stuff will. … We try to mimic nature here, with undulating ridges and not those nice, flat, table-top rock piles.”
“It’s part of putting it back,” Herzog says. “Closing that loop.”
“We’re making landforms that are going to last hundreds of thousands of years,” Barto says. “This is the stuff that gets me excited.”
We drive back to Golconda, past Getchell Mine, an oldie that’s just getting started up again, and past the Pinson Mine, which has been closed for several years.
“They did a good job there,” Schack says of Pinson’s reclamation.
It looks OK. You can see that a bite was taken out of the mountain. I guess, out loud, that you can never put everything back the way it was before you started digging.
“There’s no denying it impacts the land," Schack says, changing the subject to catching Lahontan trout in Maggie Creek.