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Gold-Mining Cyanide Blamed in Wildlife Deaths

April 18, 1989|LARRY B. STAMMER | Times Environmental Writer

Declaring that thousands of birds and animals are being poisoned, Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) and the Wilderness Society called Monday for a federal investigation into gold mining operations in California and Nevada that use cyanide to extract the precious metal.

More than 6,400 migratory birds and other animals, including deer, coyotes, kit foxes, rabbits and chipmunks, have been killed at the Nevada mines since 1984, according to figures compiled by Nevada officials and released at a press conference Monday at the Federal Building in Westwood.

Most of the mines are in arid areas, and birds and animals searching for water are attracted to the cyanide-laced holding ponds that are an integral part of the mining operations. There are 93 such operations in the two states.

"It's an environmental scandal taking place in the remotest areas of California and Nevada," Patricia Schifferle, the California-Nevada director of the Wilderness Society, said Monday. She said the death rate in 1988 was twice 1987's in Nevada. There are no figures available for wildlife deaths at California mines.

At the same time, Levine's office released a letter urging the House subcommittee on mining and natural resources to request an investigation by the General Accounting Office, the investigatory arm of Congress.

But the mining industry issued a statement later in the day charging the Wilderness Society with issuing misleading information.

"Any characterization that the California mining industry is responsible for significant numbers of bird deaths or that it disregards its environmental responsibilities is absolutely untrue," said Bill Tilden, chairman of the mining industry's Desert Conservation Institute.

An "informal survey" of 10 of 93 mining operations turned up fewer than 200 dead birds last year, Tilden said. He said the information was collected by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. By the time Tilden issued his statement, Bureau of Land Management offices had closed and his figures could not be verified.

The call by Levine for a General Accounting Office investigation came on the eve of a public hearing scheduled for tonight by the Bureau of Land Management on a controversial plan to open a mine 100 miles south of Las Vegas in the Castle Mountains of the eastern Mojave Desert where a new 1.5-million-acre Mojave National Park is proposed.

Known as "heap leach" mining, the method has become popular in the last decade because it enables microscopic bits of gold to be economically extracted from low-grade ore.

Heap leach mining involves saturating heaps of ore dug from nearby strip mines with a cyanide solution. The solution, which is about 0.1% cyanide, bonds to the bits of gold and is then drained into a holding pond where the gold is separated from the solution. Companies can produce an ounce of gold for about $200 or less and sell it for about $400. It costs about $300 an ounce from deep mining and standard milling methods.

Schifferle charged Monday that the Bureau of Land Management was "ready to approve" the mining operation proposed by Viceroy Resource Corp., a Canadian firm based in Vancouver.

"The BLM continues to approve these mining operations. . . . I believe we have a case of Valdez-type indifference," Schifferle said, referring to circumstances leading up to the 11-million-gallon crude oil spill March 24 from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska.

BLM spokeswoman Barbara Maxfield denied Monday that a decision has been made on the Castle Mountain proposal. But she said the General Mining Law of 1872 requires the bureau to approve the Castle Mountain mine unless it would result in "undue or unnecessary" degradation of the habitat.

Ross Fitzpatrick, president of Viceroy Resources Corp., could not be reached for comment Monday. But he told The Times a year ago that steps would be taken to protect birds and wildlife from entering the ponds, including floating covers on the surface and the use of air cannons and multicolored flags to scare birds away.

The Castle Mountain mine proposed by Viceroy would extract about $40-million worth of gold from 2.8 million tons of crushed ore each year, according to company President Ross Fitzpatrick. The strip mine will be 600 feet deep and 2,200 feet across.

Schifferle warned that, based on the known deaths of birds and wildlife and other cyanide heap leach gold mines, the mine proposed in the eastern Mojave should be prohibited.

Schifferle said mine owners are exempt from state and federal hazardous waste cleanup and prevention laws. She said the mining industry is not required to pay royalties to the federal government or the cost of cleaning up public lands and restoring them to their original condition. She pointed out that such royalties and cleanup charges are routinely paid by the oil and gas industry.

The 7 p.m. BLM hearing tonight at the San Bernardino County Government Center, as well as hearings Wednesday in Barstow and Thursday in Las Vegas, are on a final environmental impact statement. The public comment period closes May 15 and a decision on the proposal is expected in mid-July, Maxfield said.

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