Heap Leach Gold Mining Accelerates Across the American West
Twin Creek gold mine with cyanide waste holding pond in foreground.
Carlin Trench area, Nevada. (c) Bruce Gordon, EcoFlight 2006.
With the price of gold rising to more than $700 a ounce, mining for gold across America’s remaining western wildlands is exploding and with it, the use of heap leach mining, a toxic and environmentally dangerous technique for recovering minute amounts of the precious metal.
In an effort to protect a vital Alaskan watershed from heap leach gold mining, EcoFlight recently joined forces with Trout Unlimited, the Bristol Bay Alliance, and Earthworks to provide ground and aerial tours of mining in the Carlin Trench, part of the Great Basin in central Nevada. The tours provided native tribal leaders from Alaska’s Bristol Bay region an opportunity to see the ecological impacts of large open pit mining operations firsthand and to meet with tribal leaders in Nevada whose communities have already been affected by open pit heap leach mining.
The Great Basin is a vast expanse of arid desert playas and jagged mountain peaks stretching across Nevada, western Utah and parts of Oregon, Idaho and California. One of the most biodiverse regions on the continent, it is home to bighorn sheep, desert tortoise and sage grouse, and enjoys some of the most roadless, pristine land remaining in the United States. It is also ground zero for U.S. gold mining production and the impacts of this mining are devastatingly obvious from the air.
Further north, at the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed, a number of mining companies are attempting to develop a 756 square mile mining district - including North America’s largest open-pit gold mine, the proposed Pebble Mine. At present the watershed is home to a vital native subsistence fishery as well as a wealth of fragile and unique natural resources, including all five species of Alaska's Pacific Salmon and the world's largest Sockeye Salmon run, the largest Chinook Salmon run in Alaska (and perhaps the world) and a sport trout fishery that attracts more wilderness fans than any other area of the state.
The proposed Pebble Mine alone is projected to cover over 15 square miles of land and generate 3 billion tons of mine waste. Because the Pebble Mine will be the first mine proposed in the permitting process, it is a keystone project that would open the door to much greater development. There is growing concern and opposition to the Pebble Mine among numerous native communities, the Alaska Intertribal Council, commercial fishing organizations and sports fishing lodge owners. Even Alaska's very pro-development Senator Ted Stevens has expressed concern for the impacts of this mine. EcoFlight’s aerial tours worked to empower and advance the growing opposition to mining this pristine watershed. After the flights over Nevada’s Carlin Trench mines, Kathy Wassillie, a native Alaskan and a member of the Kokhanok Village Council had this to say: “This aerial view said so much … the magnitude of the mines themselves and, although the topography was very different, it was obvious that the waters were compromised. I could only imagine the effect on our region where water is our most precious resource.”
Press flights are key to getting the aerial view of western lands to the
eyes and ears of the public. This Spring EcoFlight flew numerous press
flights, including the LA Times, the Christian Science Monitor and CBS
Evening News. (c) Bruce Gordon, EcoFlight 2006.
A Brief Primer on Cyanide Heap Leach Mining
Cyanide is a highly toxic chemical – one teaspoon of two percent cyanide solution can cause death in humans. Today, this dangerous chemical is used in gold extraction operations worldwide and has left a legacy of environmental disasters in countries ranging from Guyana to Kyrgzstan to the USA.
First used on a large scale in the 1970’s, heap leach mining is a process in which a sodium cyanide solution is sprayed on vast open-air piles of crushed rock. As the solution passes through the rock layers it teases the gold out of the ore where it is collected at the bottom and processed further. Cyanide combines with up to 97% of the gold, including microscopic particles of gold that are too small to be seen by the naked eye. As little as one ounce of gold can be extracted from 3,000,000 ounces of low-grade ore. Ore that had previously been thought to be too low-grade to mine is made profitable by the cyanide heap leach process.
The cyanide wastewater, full of heavy metals and other pollutants, can leak from holding ponds, contaminating ground and drinking water and kill fish, waterfowl and the aquatic food chain. While the mining industry likes to highlight the fact that cyanide breaks down rapidly in sunlight, in fact, cyanide decomposes into other chemicals that are also toxic to fish and river life. Some of these chemicals can last for a long time in river ecosystems. The mining industry usually does not test for these breakdown chemicals.
Cyanide is now the chemical of choice in the gold industry throughout the world. More than 90 percent of global annual gold production is extracted using this chemical.
Dear Friends and Supporters,
It’s springtime in the Rockies, though from the air you’d never know it. The high peaks have a snowpack of more than 13% above average in the Roaring Fork Valley. It is extraordinarily beautiful and contrasts with the valley below, where temperatures are in the 70’s and trees are budding. Thinking about spring and climate change reminded me of a conversation years ago with my friend Bonni Dunbar, a five–time NASA shuttle astronaut. Bonni was speaking of her recent trip into space around the time when Time magazine had Planet Earth as “man of the year” on its cover. It was a national statement about the importance of the environment in everything from economics to climate change. It signified a positive spirit of change, utilizing new technologies to view the earth as a whole, and promoting an ethic of sustainability.
At EcoFlight we are constantly challenged by our mission of educating and advocating for the environment in this powerful anti-conservationist period. The heart of our mission is to mobilize communities and the press to bring back images of important changes happening to our landscapes. But is this enough? At EcoFlight our Flights Across America and Kestrel Project have been motivating our nation’s youth. We believe our youth are key to our nation’s and our planet’s future sustainability and health.
New organizations such as the Maroon Corps here in Aspen, are being formed to include young adults who have a vision of how wilderness and civilization can coexist. They feel compelled to speak out and encourage others to do so. EcoFlight inspires these groups by flying them over threatened ecosystems to see the land’s value from an aerial perspective. It is the infusion of this new energy that will turn the tide and make conservation a mainstream concern once more.
There are hopeful signs that in the absence of national leadership, western communities are stepping up to lead. Governors are working towards sustainable energy solutions. Organizations like SUWA and The Wilderness Society have helped to create a new Wilderness Bill - the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area. The Rocky Mountain Energy Coalition (RMEC) continues to challenge the oil and gas industries and actively seeks to promote clean energy policies. EcoFlight is proud to work alongside these organizations, our progressively minded western leaders and the inspiring young adults in our own Roaring Fork Valley.
The White River National Forest in Colorado has over 640,000 acres of inventoried roadless areas. It is the most recreated forest in the USA –both a haven and a playground, used by hikers, hunters, anglers, dirt and mountain bikers, equestrians, backcountry skiers, snowmobilers, wildlife-watchers and other outdoor enthusiasts. In addition to the incredible landscapes, these areas provide vital habitat and migration routes for numerous wildlife species and serve as ecological anchors.The Roadless Area Conservation Rule, created by the Clinton administration after the most extensive public process in the history of federal rule making, resolved the controversy of how roadless areas in National Forest Lands should be managed. It protected almost 60 million acres of the most pristine forest areas in our country. When the Bush administration came into office in 2001 it immediately suspended this roadless rule: logging, mining and new roads therefore reappeared in many of these roadless areas. Under a new public process being conducted in 2006, Coloradans must defend our last remaining roadless areas – or risk allowing them to be opened up to drilling, logging, mining or other development. EcoFlight has responded with alacrity to this urgent call to protect our last outstanding roadless areas in our own backyard. EcoFlight has teamed up with The Wilderness Workshop, the Citizens for Roadless Area Defense (C-RAD) and the newly formed Maroon Corps to bring attention to this very current and looming issue. The Maroon Corps is a group of young adults, predominantly athletes, who define their existence by wild places and want to bring a conservation bent to their endeavors. Led by Aron Ralston, one of their chief focuses is to introduce their contemporaries to conservation and to work with C-Rad on the roadless area issue.
The Wilderness Workshop and EcoFlight are working together with C-Rad and Maroons Corp to drum up support for our citizens to adopt these 84 roadless areas in the WRNF and in doing so, to become that particular area’s champion, to research and know the area in intimate detail so that the particular values of that roadless area can be well presented to the State Roadless Taskforce when it takes public comment on the WRNF in June of 2006. EcoFlight has already commenced flying the Maroon Corps and roadless area adopters over some of the WRNF; and EcoFlight has more citizen flights and a Press day scheduled over the next month.
EcoFlight and Team Tilapia Fly to Protect
the Fresh Water Ecosystems of Belize
Tilapia en route to your table. Photo courtesy of AARM.
Belize remains one of the world’s most biologically diverse nations with the integrity of its natural resources still very much intact. 93% of Belize is still forested and it boasts the largest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere. The Belizean people have a history of working hard to keep a conservation consciousness in balancing development with conservation of their natural resources. EcoFlight has developed strong relationships with many of the environmental, educational and Government agencies and organizations in Belize and accomplished an intense week of conservation flying there in March 2006.
One of the fastest growing products on the global market for food fish is a fast-growing and hardy African fish called Tilapia. This good eating fish is produced by the ton in tropical locales around the world and shipped to major markets in the United States and Europe. But what is an economic boon for a place like Belize, where foreign income is badly needed, can also wreck havoc on freshwater ecosystems, if—and when—Tilapias are “accidentally” released from their holding pens and begin to reproduce in the wild.
University of Michigan PhD student, Peter Esselman and his research team have set out on an ambitious research project to study African Tilapias in native fish communities throughout Belize. It is a research project that will take the crew from the swampy lowlands in the coastal plains, to the small streams of the Maya Mountains, and even to the skies above Belize in a recent fly-over with EcoFlight.
According to Esselman, the spread of Tilapia from one watershed to the next depends on the connectivity between bodies of water. In northern Belize, the small connections between wetlands form crucial linkages that help sustain isolated Tilapia populations and form new ones when big floods come. “These are the linkages that we were examining and photographing on our trip with EcoFlight today,” said Esselman. “When you are slogging waist deep through reeds and grass pulling nets, it is impossible to get a solid grasp on the big picture of how one wetland or river connects to another.” With EcoFlight’s assistance the team was able to scrutinize and photograph the waters of northern Belize to identify pathways for invasion and highly isolated systems where Tilapias may not yet have reached; and to identify places where, later in the field season, they will need to slog through the mud and mosquitoes to access. Says field assistant Sonny Garbutt, “If only we could figure out a way to haul nets from this airplane we’d be in business!”
EcoFlight in Belize
EcoFlight’s President has been flying conservation missions in Belize since the early 1980’s. Working with the Peregrine Fund, Birds Without Borders, the Belize Zoo and the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education. EcoFlight successfully tracked three Harpy eagles in the Rio Bravo conservation area and narrowed down likely Harpy Eagle nesting spots in the Bladen Nature Reserve.
Other flights over the Bladen have served to illustrate the new and enormous threat posed by encroaching agricultural development that is pushing against park borders. The area is remote and difficult to access by land. Jacob Marlin, Managing Director of the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education, stated that the aerial view of this threat was “invaluable” to government and to his staff. EcoFlight also flew a diverse number of constituents over the Bacalar Chico (World Heritage site) and Hol Chan Marine Reserves that included fishermen, students, conservationists, the Peace Corps, local press and San Pedro Mayoress Elsa Paz. Flights over Middle Long Caye and Swallow Caye showed these mangrove islands as nearly pristine, both of which are threatened by development.