Rural Wrap

For $1,500, We'd Have Told the State Regulators to Shove Off

evada’s Department of Environmental Protection (NDEP) recently sent a message to the state’s mining industry: Cooperating with state regulators is a waste of time.

This spring, part of a heap-leach ore pad at Newmont Gold slumped, crushing some pipes. A leach pad is where gold mines stack their low-grade ore, then leach out the gold by sprinkling the ore with a cyanide solution. The solution washes down through the heap of ore collected so the gold can be removed and sold.

But on June 6, the crushed pipes caused some of the cyanide solution to flow out of the containment area and into a ditch that leads to Maggie Creek, a tributary of the Humboldt River.

Newmont crews ran ahead of the flowing solution—building dams and installing pumps as they went—and managed to stop 256,300 gallons of the solution from reaching Maggie Creek. That meant 18,700 gallons went into Maggie. Newmont reports the cyanide levels of the solution as it hit Maggie Creek was in excess of government limits for cyanide in drinking water. To which the proper reaction is "So what?" Nobody drinks out of Maggie Creek. When the solution hit the Humboldt River near Carlin—where nobody drinks out of the river either—the problem had been diluted away.

Newmont—after taking time out to notify all the official busybodies that must be notified—proceeded to collect the solution that had been contained in the ditch, then gathered up the soil from the ditch as well. The company then went to work moving the crushed ore, five million tons, from the slumped portion of the leach pad and brought in outside experts to see what went wrong, how to fix it and how to prevent it from happening again.

Why did Newmont go through all this trouble? Not because regulators were breathing down their necks, but because when cyanide solution runs into a creek, Newmont is losing money. And Newmont, like all the other mines, is in business to make money. Newmont’s owners would not be pleased should the company develop a habit of letting stockholder’s gold wash into Maggie Creek. Nor would they be pleased—and the stock price would so reflect that displeasure—should their company be the subject of protests and investigations into the poisoning of streams.

And what was the state’s reaction to the event? NDEP had the gall to compliment Newmont for the quick and effective response to the accident, then fined it $23,500. NDEP said it was giving Newmont a break by knocking $1,500 off the $25,000 maximum allowable fine as a reward for its responsibility.

The message to irresponsible operators is clear: They should keep their traps shut when an accident happens and try to cover up any damage as best they can before the regulators hear about it. If they succeed, they’ll only be out the time, materials and product lost to the accident. If they fail by getting caught, they’ll be out an additional $25,000, which is only $1,500 more than they would have to pay if they had been up front about the accident. Adding insult to (superficial) injury, the state said the money would go toward projects in communities, and the state was stepping in to ease that burden.

As we recall, this is the same mining industry that has donated millions of dollars over the years to community projects, has chipped in $135,500 toward the Northeastern Nevada Museum expansion and ponies up many tens of million of dollars each year in taxes to those communities. Not to mention raising the standard of living for the region. We certainly don’t need the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection running around twisting arms.

The fine reminds me of all the hoorah over the Alaskan oil spill a while back, when our politicians were climbing over each other to see who could denounce the company in the shrillest voice, call for the highest fine and create the most new regulations—as if Exxon somehow unfairly benefited by losing a shipload of product and spending millions of dollars cleaning up the mess.

What these dim bulbs don’t understand is that it is profits, not regulations, that drive companies. And these companies have a personal interest in keeping their oil in their ships and their gold in their recovery systems. u

Dan Steninger is the editorial page editor for the Elko Daily Free Press.


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