ACROSS the spare, dry reaches of southeastern Oregon, a new species is proliferating among the rocks and sand and sagebrush. Specimens stand slim and still as cactuses, and upon closer inspection turn out to be lengths of white PVC pipe driven into the ground to mark mining claims - upward of 400,000 to establish the 65,000 claims that have been filed in recent years. This is all part of the "new gold rush" that has swept the West, the result of three things: gold prices of $300 to $400 an ounce, a method of extraction that allows miners to separate microscopic bits of the precious metal from tons of hitherto worthless ore, and what critics say are lax government regulations.
The late 20th-century version of the grizzled codger with the dusty burro and pickax is a multimillion-dollar outfit with huge earth-moving vehicles and truckloads of cyanide pellets. The earth is dynamited, then bulldozed, and scooped into huge mounds. A weak solution of sodium cyanide is sprayed over the mountain of ore. Tiny bits of gold adhere to the cyanide, which drains off into "pregnant ponds," and it is then carried by pipe to a nearby plant for separation.
With production costs of $200 an ounce, this "cyanide heap-leach" mining can be very profitable. (The price of gold is $367.40 an ounce at this writing.) As such facilities sprouted up across the West over the past decade - about 160 gold mines now operate on public lands - United States production leapt from 1 million ounces a year to 9.5 million ounces.
But the process requires a large-scale operation that tears up the countryside. About 400 tons of earth are moved to obtain the 20 tons of ore necessary to produce a single ounce of gold. A proposal by the Atlas Corporation for Grassy Mountain near Vale, Ore., would create a pit 2,000 feet in diameter and 800 to 1,000 feet deep. Some 150 million tons of earth would be moved to produce 32 tons of gold - about enough to fill a pickup truck.
"We're looking at tremendously deep holes that will not be filled," says Gary Brown, leader of a grass-roots group called Concerned Citizens for Responsible Mining. Upward of a dozen heap-leach mining proposals are anticipated in the state, described by Mr. Brown as "the last frontier for the industry to conquer."
The environmental record for cyanide mining in other states is far from perfect. Last October, Echo Bay Minerals agreed to pay $500,000 in government fines and donations (to the Nature Conservancy) as part of a guilty plea on 25 counts of killing migratory birds at a tailings pond in central Nevada. This is said to be the largest fine ever for violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Also in October, about 10 million gallons of cyanide solution flooded a tributary of the Lynches River in South Carol ina when an earth dam belonging to the Brewster Gold Mine failed. At least 10,000 fish were estimated to have been killed.
In the West, many of the cyanide mines are along the Pacific flyway. Especially in desert areas, thirsty, tired birds are attracted to what look like pristine ponds. Mining companies erect nets and fire noise cannons, but these are not foolproof. The cyanide ponds are lined with plastic sheets, but these frequently leak into streams and ground water.
When pits are dug, toxic heavy metals are exposed as well. Although records are incomplete, tens of thousands of birds and mammals are known to have died as a result.
"These heaps are the toxic waste Superfund cleanup sites of the future," warns Andy Kerr, conservation director for the Oregon Natural Resources Council.
The federal Surface Mining Act requires environmental protection and reclamation of open-pit coal mining, but does not apply to hard-rock minerals like gold. The US Bureau of Land Management is charged with overseeing mining on all federal lands (where most Western gold mines are located) and enforcing other environmental laws, but critics say the bureau is not doing its job.
"The agency's position right now can be summed up in three words: 'Can't Say No,' " says Phillip Hocker, president of the Mineral Policy Center, a private mining reform research and lobbying group in Washington, D.C.
Some mine-company executives acknowledge that their industry must do more to protect the environment. "We do need to encourage recycling to the maximum. We do need to encourage conservation," says R. K. Urnovitz, manager of government relations for the Northwest Mining Association in Spokane, Wash.
"We cannot restore the land, but we can reclaim it," says Mr. Urnovitz. "We can't put back every rock, but we can reclaim the land, and we can protect water quality. In fact we should be required to."
A recent agreement between a Canadian company and environmental groups regarding a proposed gold mine in the East Mojave National Scenic Area of California may be a model for the future.
The Viceroy Gold Corporation will use enclosed storage tanks for the cyanide solution, place liners underneath the ore piles, install electronic monitors to warn of leaks, and put up fences to keep out wildlife. The company also will re-contour the landscape, plant native species of vegetation once the mining is complete, and pay $2 million into a fund for environmental restoration.
THE negotiated agreement does not fully satisfy critics who question the need for any degradation of nature to extract a mineral that is used mainly for jewelry. But the fact that Viceroy can do all of this and still make a profit is encouraging to those pushing for stricter state and federal regulations as well as tougher enforcement of existing land-use laws.
Although there has been no test case yet, the US Supreme Court has told states they may pass reclamation regulations. Another avenue may be reform of the 1872 US Mining Law (see related story), which at present says nothing about reclaiming hard-rock mining areas.
"We want up-front financial security on total reclamation," says Roy Elicker, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation. "We want the pits to be back-filled, we want the land re-contoured and restored to pre-mining uses, we want the topsoil replaced and native vegetation successfully reseeded."
Here in Oregon, bills to protect the environment from the effects of mining are about to be considered. If the mining industry is able to fend off new legislation, environmentalists say they'll take the matter to the voters via an initiative. As the demography of the region changes from rural to urban, and with it comes greater concern for protecting the environment, the time may be ripe for change.
"My mother taught me if I made a mess I had to clean it up," says Andy Kerr of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "We don't have any land to spare, even out West."