National Geographic : 2000 Mar
McLaughlin gold mine near Lower Lake, Cali fornia, to demonstrate the extent to which miners have mended their ways. The mine is featured in TV ads. This is gold mining today, the ads proclaim-beautiful hills, waving fields of grass, prancing mule deer, a glimmering lake. The hills are real and so are the grasses, the deer, and the lake. I saw them all during a tour of the mine in the company of Raymond Krauss, the mine's environmental manager. I saw waste rock piles shaped into eye-pleasing mounds, the milling operation that recycles and contains all processed water, and the huge tailings pond that, over time, will become a 600-acre wetland. I saw the sophisticated mon itoring system for the early detection of con tamination in the groundwater. I even saw the gate placed over the mouth of a tunnel to pro tect the maternity roost for a local population of Townsend's big-eared bats. Clearly it is state-of-the-art reclamation, the McLaughlin, and kudos for it have included a commendation from the Sierra Club. What he was doing here, Krauss told me, made per fect business sense too. "When you look at the total environmental cost, it is roughly 2 percent of our capital cost for the whole project. We want to protect our stockholders' investment. Creating an environmental liability doesn't serve their interests or ours." "The McLaughlin is pretty good," concedes Steve D'Esposito, executive director of the Mineral Policy Center, "but it's hardly typical. While many mines do perform a lot of recla mation work, I don't know of another opera tion that goes as far as the McLaughlin. Some mines ignore or subvert the law. Some are just incompetent." As evidence, reformers point to a number of dramatic modern failures: The Phelps Dodge Mining Corporation's Chino copper mine near Santa Rita, New Mexico, for example, where spills, leaks, and other unlawful discharges have dumped more than 180 million gallons of contaminated wastewater into Whitewater Creek since 1987. Or the Ray Complex in Ari zona, where in 1990 rainwater flushed some 324,000 gallons of wastewater loaded with copper sulfates into the Gila River. Or the Summitville gold mine in southern Colorado, operated by a Canadian corporation. Touted from the beginning as a model for what mod ern mining could do, it had hardly opened for business in 1986 before it began leaking cya nide, acid, and heavy metals into the Alamosa River, poisoning some 17 miles of the stream.