No surprise that with gold at $1663/oz. and rising, mining companies —vanquished from Mono County in the late 1990s — have returned. Cougar Gold wants to strip mine in the Bodie Hills Wilderness Study Area. Royal Gold sold their claim at Hot Creek on public land in Long Valley to Vista Gold. Delta Minerals is now interested in buying Vista’s claim and developing it.
Delta Minerals’ friendly advance man from Canada presented himself as an “active outdoorsman” to local representatives of Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, the first stops in Mono County for any resource extraction outfit. What he doesn’t know is it’s not just traditional environmental groups opposed to mining; any Mono business dependent on visitors and tourism will be opposed, and for good reason.
The scale of today’s mining is hard to comprehend. Modern mining moves the land, mountains of it, with mega-machinery. The pit that Royal Gold planned to dig at Hot Creek was bigger than the town of Mammoth Lakes.
Digging huge pits is required to make money on low-grade ore. The rich veins are gone. With open pit/cyanide heap leach mining, though, Royal Gold knew the assay of 0.018 oz./ton at Hot Creek could be profitable — even when gold was at $800/oz.
Picture a very thin gold wedding band. At an assay value of 0.018 oz./ton, it would take a pick-up truck’s worth of ore, its bed piled higher than the cab, to recover enough gold to make it. At today’s prices, even lower assays are profitable.
Then there’s the cyanide. Crushed ore is piled in heaps two stories high on a rubber membrane. An elevated sprinkler system sprays cyanide solution on the heaps for months or years. The cyanide leaches out any gold in the ore as the solution percolates through the piles and runs off into a storage pond (located, in Mono County’s case, on the Pacific Flyway).
Imagine. Royal Gold’s operation was proposed for the most seismically active area in the Eastern Sierra, at the headwaters of Los Angeles’ water supply, adjacent to world-class fly fishing at Hot Creek, and atop an area whose hydrology is poorly understood. What could go wrong?
Cost-effective mining today is a deafening, dusty, 24/7 operation. The aggravation isn’t offset by well-paying jobs, either, because mining companies bring their own crews to run the expensive equipment. No more lone prospector with a pan and pickaxe or below ground shafts and tunnels and an on-site stamp mill: modern mining operations take over the land and crowd out nearly all other uses.
Tiffany & Co., wholly dependent on mining to supply gold, silver and gemstones, is an unexpected solid supporter of Mono County’s spectacular open spaces. Tiffany’s chairman and CEO, Michael J. Kowalski, wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle (August 2, 2011),
“Over 175 years of experience as a jeweler … tell us that you can achieve economic growth without sacrificing our nation’s natural heritage, wildlife and waters. It is for this reason that Tiffany & Co., beginning in 1994, has actively and publicly opposed irresponsible mining and development of our public lands. There are places in our nation, belonging to all Americans … too special to forever sacrifice for short-term gain.”
Delta Minerals’ advance man indicated, it was reported by Malcolm Clark, chair, Sierra Club Range of Light Group, “they would be hesitant to pursue the claim and development if faced with strong community opposition.”
May we locals remain as vigilant and prepared to speak up as was the chairman of Tiffany’s in New York City to not sacrifice Mono’s public lands to mining company shareholders.