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Toxic Gold

Ninety Percent of the Gold Ever Mined has been Mined Since 1848 and Today Nevada Produces Almost Three-Quarters of the Nation's Gold Supply

When the Gold Rush ended in California, it moved across the Sierras to Nevada. This began with geologists locating the 'Carlin Trend' in Nevada's Humboldt Basin. The Carlin Trend is 50 by 5 miles across northeast Nevada' s Humboldt Basin and bears "invisible" gold, which became profitable to mine in the 1980's with the rise in gold prices and the introduction of cyanide heap-leaching. This modern mining is highly toxic. Gold ore often contains sulfur, forming sulfuric acid from exposure to air and water. This acid attracts other metals such as arsenic, antimony, lead, and mercury. A copious amount of water is needed in gold mining to 'dewater' the mine sites by pumping out underground water. Some of this is pumped into the Humboldt River and some irrigates alfalfa fields - some to process the ore. Some is pumped back into the ground but by this time it has picked up cyanide, acids, and heavy metals.

As part of its campaign, Okanogan Highlands Alliance started bottling 'Buckthorn' water. Their slogan is 'Pure Water Is More Precious Than Gold' . This is a true statement; the 2000 gallons of water that is required to produce an ounce of gold worth about $280 is, in itself, worth $3,540 when bottled.

Gold mining forms methyl mercury, which accumulates in living tissue, in streams and lakes, and is capable of causing brain damage. It is a danger, especially in the South Yuba River, Deer Creek, and Bear River. It shows up in elevated levels in the fish.

Ronald Churchill, who surveyed historical data in order to arrive at an estimate for his employer, the State Division of Mines & Geology, reported that early hydraulic miners "lost" as much as one pound of mercury for every three or four ounces of gold they mined.

An ordinary household thermometer contains one-half gram of mercury, which would contaminate a twenty five-acre lake to make its fish unsafe to eat. This one-pound of mercury would fill about 900 thermometers. Churchill estimates that gold miners in California, for example, lost about 12.8 million pounds of mercury in the 19th and early 20th centuries, 80 to 90% of it in the Sierra Nevadas - enough to fill more than 11.5 billion household thermometers - most of it still being out there. Somewhere.

Mercury escapes into the environment wherever it is mined and processed; spilled during handling, escaping up the chimney during refining, absorbed into the bricks of the refinery furnaces.

The past is still alive. To remove all the mercury from the watershed is unrealistic. The EPA has already spent millions of dollars attempting to clean up mercury contamination. This is not only costly but also time-consuming; the EPA has years to go to clean up part of the contamination.

Contaminated streams and lakes are not the only areas of mercury contamination. Land use is also affected.

The Nevada County area is trying to make the transition from an economy based on natural resources extraction, such as mining and logging, to a tourist-based economy. It seems ironic that while fishing is one of the attractions, the mining legacy is also attracting visitors to the museums, parks, shops, and inns where, if they eat much of the gold country's fish, they might be poisoned.

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Sources: John Krist of the Ventura County Star
Scripps-McClatchey Western Service
Rebecca Solnit, Sierra Magazine

For Additional Information, Please Contact:

 

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Sources: John Krist of the Ventura County Star
Scripps-McClatchey Western Service
Rebecca Solnit, Sierra Magazine

For Additional Information, Please Contact: Margot B

 
By Margot B