Water.  The stuff of life.

Standing in New York’s Hudson Valley region, water is the last thing from my mind.  Here, We are literally inundated by water.  Wikipedia defines the phrase water table as the upper limit of abundant groundwater. Link  Here, the water table remains steady at a level about 4 feet or so below my feet, as we discovered during a recent construction project on my home.  In fact, freshwater resources make up perhaps a third of the total area of my town, at least part of which is included in the New York City water system.
But of course not all regions are so well endowed.  And it’s not just dry climate that is the problem, or at least not the entire problem.

In Nevada, a state already saddled with a dry climate and the fastest growth in the nation, mining interests have compounded the problem.

NYT Link

Nearly 10 million gallons a day draining away in the driest state in the nation – and the fastest growing one, propelled by the demographic rocket of Las Vegas – is just one of the many strange byproducts of Nevada’s tangled love affair with gold

These vast quantities of water are utilized in open-pit mining, diluting the cyanide used to free the small particles of gold from the ore.

The scope of the problem is staggering.  Words really can’t do the problem justice, but the following regarding the 20 or so major mines in the state is illustrative.

…When they are gone, the vast pits they leave behind will create a deficit in the aquifer equivalent to 20 to 25 years of the total flow of Nevada’s longest river, the Humboldt, according to state figures tallied by independent scientists. That is three times as much water as New York City stores in its entire upstate reservoir system.

But problems arising from mining activity is not limited to water shortages.  Toxic waste is generated in large quantities.  

Nevada’s gold mines will bequeath more toxic mercury waste in their mountainous rock piles than any other industry, about 86 percent of the nation’s total in 2003, according to the most recent figures from the Environmental Protection Agency. …

While there is tangentially related federal legislation, it is only antiquated state statutes that directly address mining activities.    

But mining experts, legal scholars and historians say that prosperity was also built on the basis of a law drafted in the age of the horse and buggy – the General Mining Law of 1872 – which declares mining the best use of public land, gives miners access to that land for bargain-basement prices, and makes no mention of a cleanup.

The effects of mercury dispersion are widespread.  The state of Idaho has been studying increased mercury levels in its waterways.

Michael DuBois, an analyst with the Idaho State Department of Environmental Quality, was assigned this year to figure out why the Salmon Falls Creek Reservoir, on the Nevada border, had mercury levels 10 times higher than any body of water ever tested in the state.  The more Mr. DuBois and other scientists looked, the more they became convinced that airborne mercury, which has been linked to impaired neurological development in fetuses, infants and children, was coming north from Nevada’s gold mines.

Regulation of Mercury is only a recent development.  Prior to 1998, it was essentially an issue of trust.  Of course, one is always on shaky ground  where trust and big business is concerned.  (Nevada is the third largest producer of gold in the world, generating some 6.94 million ounces in 2004. Link)

Yes, this is big money.  The year 2004 yielded some $2.8 billion.  And we can’t have too much in the way of regulation where big business is concerned.  Only South Africa and Austalia produce more gold.  Of course, Nevada mining activities also include silver and other items to a lesser degree.

Why the seeming reluctance to amend the existing 1872 law? Could it be because mining interests have provided much in the way of campaign funding for state races. Perhaps. These two links show the contributions totalling some $163,000.000 for two divisions of Barrick for the year 2004. Link Link

Meanwhile, the mercury generated remains in the environment, entering the bodies of fish through water contact. The amount of mercury produced by the
mines is unknown as reporting was not required prior to 1998. Prior to that there was only reassurances.

Before then, simple reassurances were regulation enough. In a 1997 agency report on mercury, gold was left off the list as a source because, the report’s authors said, an “industry representative” had told them mercury was not a problem.

And still there is a vacuum of unified laws directly addressing these issues. Instead, different strands of law must be pulled together.

“The fact that the 1872 mining law had no environmental provisions was significant, because it means that those rules had to emerge from other places,” said James McElfish, a senior lawyer at the Environmental Law Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Washington that advocates sustainable development and environmental protection. “The upshot of this is that it’s a process of experimentation and diffuse authority and no one is really leading the way.”

But the scariest part are the large lakes that will remain long after the mines are abandoned, some of which will contain concentrated toxins.

In the future, in the years after the mines are closed, the 40 or so pits will fill with water. It is only then that the full story will be told.

The lakes will store an estimated 500 billion gallons or more, according to estimates by Dr. Miller at the University of Nevada and other scientists. The Betze-Post, the center of Barrick’s operations, is expected to become the largest artificial lake located wholly in the state, holding about 114 billion gallons – or more than 100 times the size of the Central Park reservoir in New York.

Some of the lakes are expected to be poisonous, laced with arsenic and selenium. Others may have metal and acid concentrations toxic to fish but safe for humans. Some will be relatively benign.

And of course, the evaporation of precious water will go on, continuing the drain on the aquifers deep below.

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