Environmental Impacts of Gold Mining

Gold is an important and valuable component of life. It possesses qualities that makes it one of the most sought-after metals. It is used to make jewelry and conducts electricity. This allows gold to be used in a wide variety of industries such as: dentistry (fillings, crowns, and bridges), conducting (wires and data transfer), electronics (phones, calculators, and computers), medicine (illness treatment, arthritis medication, and pain relievers), gold leaf creation (building decoration), jewelry (rings and necklaces), aerospace (vehicles, helmets, and UVA/UVB filter), currency (coins and investments). Gold does not tarnish which makes is resistant to solvents. One mined ounce of gold from mined ore has the potential to create 20 tons of solid waste using significant amounts of mercury and cyanide. Gold mining causes the potential of significant environmental impacts to water, soil, air, and habitats because of the numerous amounts of risks and incidents that can take place. The preservationists’ efforts to combat this anthropocentric attack on these lands in Northern Nevada have been ineffective and rejected. Conservation efforts and best managements practices are necessary to combat the negative effects of gold mining to the environment in Northern Nevada to ensure safe access to natural resources long after mine-closure for the future generations yet to come.

Large scale mining, such as the gold mines located in Northern Nevada, cam affect water quality. This mine practices zero discharge of waters that are used in ore processing, but this does not cover the potential spills and leaks that could cause water contamination. This affects waters used by humans and wildlife. For example, the water contamination of gold mines continues to cost taxpayers millions of dollars in reclamation and water-treatment efforts to restore the water back to its original state. The cyanide used in mines for ore production has caused water to become so polluted that the water in the area cannot be used unless it has undergone an extensive water treatment. This is a costly effort to restore the water to its natural and safe state that could be in place forever.

This is an environmental problem worth addressing because gold is a valuable metal for our everyday modern lives. It is a substance that is worth mining but there are certain precautions and practices that must take place in order to do so safely to minimize the impacts it has on local environments. Gold mines are located all over the world. This includes open-pit and underground mines. The people that need to address this issue is the gold mining companies themselves. Best management practices need to be created to resolve this issue from their corporate office down to operators.

Stakeholders in the area need to make their best efforts to hold these companies accountable. In Nevada, specifically stakeholders are majorly composed of the Native Western Shoshone who have not had a great history with the gold mining companies in the area for these mines are located on ancestral Shoshone lands. In 2008, the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone battled the expansion of an open pit gold mine on Mount Tenabo located in Crescent Valley, Nevada. Mount Tenabo is a sacred location where many traditional Shoshone ceremonies takes place. This gold mine expansion is called the Cortez Hills Expansion Project and is owned and operated by the largest gold mining company in the world, Barrick Gold Corporation. The estimated profit in gold deposits found on and underneath Mount Tenabo is $10 billion. This expansion is near an open pit mine that is already in operation by Barrick. The new mine in Mount Tenabo was projected to disturb ten square miles of land in the heartland of ancestral Western Shoshone lands. This disturbance would include an open pit mine, underground mine, heap leach pads, tailings and pond facilities, waster rock facilities, and hazardous waste sites. This high desert area in Northern Nevada already suffers from a low average rainfall. Mine dewatering would lower the water table in the area 1,600 feet. This affects the natural water seeps, springs, and ponds in the area that wildlife, farmers, and ranchers rely on.

There have been many preservation efforts of Mount Tenabo that have been supported and backed by the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley also known as the Treaty of Ruby Valley or Treaty of Peace and Friendship. However, this treaty has not been helpful in efforts to stop this expansion. This treaty acknowledges the land to be in ownership of the Western Shoshone. In Article 4 of the Treaty of Ruby Valley, it states the permission of gold prospecting on Western Shoshone lands. In the 1800s, mining was known to be very small scale and involved little excavation and disturbance of land. The Western Shoshones’ efforts have ben declined by the U.S. Supreme Court and have ruled in favor of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Barrick Gold Corporation in a 1985 lawsuit regardless of the transition of mining efforts from being small-scale to large-scale.

Mary and Carrie Dann are Western Shoshone sisters who are known for their actions against Barrick Gold Corporation’s expansions. They have worked to promote the rights and fought against attacks from the BLM. Carrie Dann stated, “We’re powerless against a mighty gold company like [Barrick].”. Is disheartening that such a large company can have so much power and manipulation over the U.S. Supreme Court and the BLM to support these hazardous extractions. Her statement reminds me of an article written by William R. Hoyt titled “Zen Buddhism and Western Alienation from Nature. In his article, Hoyt states, “…numerous people in the West, particularly in our enormous cities, no longer feel at home in their physical environment; they sense an alienation from nature.” These environmental impacts will forever impact Western Shoshone lands and no matter how many promises and treaties have been made, history has shown there is no way to stop it. The people feel powerless in their own home. These organizations do not have a biocentric value on the land as the Western Shoshone people, the Dann Sisters, or I myself have. We are the ones who have been here before the extractions took place, we have been here during, and our people will (hopefully) remain here long after. We are the ones that will face the consequences of contaminated soil, air, and water.

The other main actors who become affected by gold mining are the stakeholders who live in the area. This problem affects all who have lived, live, and future generations that will live in the geographical area of the watershed(s) that is affected by water pollution from the mine. Since then, Barrick has committed to readdress the significant environmental impacts of their different process locations every two years. The company has its own methods to determine which environmental issues need to be addressed most of a specific process compared to others. Regardless of one being the designated environmental commitments, all the other significant environmental impacts are still protected with best management practices. Barrick strives to only use the amount of water that it needs. If Barrick and other gold mining companies in the area only take what they need it still affects the water quantity of rivers, lakes, and streams in the Humboldt River watershed. The company states that they know it will impact their relationships with their stakeholders in a negative way if they do not uphold their commitments to improve water quality and water quantity. If they do not uphold these values, they could potentially face a new lawsuit.

Barrick also commits to reusing and recycling water they have already used in their process locations compared to withdrawing more fresh water from surrounding watersheds. In 2017, they released data that 77 percent of the water used was recycled. To maintain water quality, by installing water quality monitors in all their mines across the globe. Some of their mines but not all, are committed to being zero-discharge facilities. This means that any water used in ore processing cannot and will not be released back into the freshwater systems. In the facilities that are discharge facilities, the water undergoes extensive water-treatment and must follow strict regulations before being released. The water must meet every expectation in the company’s water permits.

A viewpoint that could have been the historic cause for this type of extraction of earth’s precious resources are the Judeo-Christian values and viewpoints. Are earth’s natural resources created solely for man for our own use or it is a part of nature? Would gold have a significance if it were not for man who extracts it from the earth and makes it valuable? These Judeo-Christian viewpoints have led to an anthropocentric view against nature. As Lynn White Jr. writes about in his article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, humans are prioritized over nature. Without people to think that something was of value, it would not have value. Our failure to address the roots of why we now suffer from this environmental issue will lead to zero progression in creating a new intrinsic value for nature. Judeo-Christian views that God made everything to benefit the creation of man. People who value this viewpoint today would most likely think that they were not using their resources to their fullest potential as opposed to a biocentric point of view.

A conservationist viewpoint would be that of the mining companies themselves. They believe that they can conserve natural resources by seeking proper use of the area. Some stakeholders in the area may also share this viewpoint for the sake of economic benefit. This viewpoint correlated with the viewpoint of Gifford Pinchot who believed in conservation. He worked to familiarize the United States with the conservationist idea that income could be generated if natural resources were handled correctly and wisely.

Conservationists’ ideas challenge the preservationist viewpoints of the Western Shoshone. This viewpoint correlates with the viewpoints of John Muir, a conservationist. Muir believed in conserving the wilderness and fully protecting it from human impact. The Western Shoshone, as John Muir, believed that conservationists were intruders. The Western Shoshone wanted full protection of Mount Tenabo and all ancestral Western Shoshone lands. If a preservationist view was used to address this issue then there would be full protection of the Cortez Hills that had sacred locations, burial sites, ceremonial grounds, and grounds that contained many pine nut trees they would harvest from every year. This tribe no longer has access to this land. If a preservationist point of view was administered in this area, these lands would be protected because of these reasons. Human impact to this area would be eliminated. Most Native American tribes have always viewed nature and all beings as equal. Non-indigenous people in the area should take into consideration the long-time traditions of caring for the lands that they have taken from Indigenous People for when these mines close the Indigenous People will remain here. Our future generations will reap the consequences of water quantity and water quality issues for years to come if not forever.

The ethical stance that I endorse is better than the root cause ethical stances because it will leave the land sustainable for years to come. The underlying problem with this is that the damage has been done. The gold has been extracted, the water, air, and soil have been polluted. Yes, the mining companies do what they can to prevent these incidents, but they still occur. And when they do, sometimes their only requirement is minimal clean-up (if required), and reporting to state offices. Those state offices require a report but if a company falls out of compliance all they must do is pay a fine. This does nothing for the local citizens who will continue to live in this land for years to come. This does nothing for the water that will need to undergo extensive treatment before being released back into our water systems. Another issue is what will such a large discharge cause to our water systems and how long will it take for it to return to its natural state if it ever will? The citizens in the area cannot be left with the responsibility of restoration after mine-closure. Whether we like it or not, we have had our land taken away, been faced with environmental degradation, and we are now reliant on these companies to clean up these areas.

We must address this issue on letting go of the past and holding this company accountable to full land release and restoration. In 2008, there was a Collaborative Agreement made with the company. Barrick sought to restore the relationship it had with the Western Shoshone. Native Americans have been given certain rights and the company has made commitments to the Native Americans. Some people view this as a sell-out. Some see it as moving forward. As a young, educated Western Shoshone and local to the area, I see this as an act of progression. We can combat further environmental degradation by educating ourselves to the history, policy, law, and current practices that relate to gold mining in Northern Nevada.

I have taken advantage of the resources Barrick has provided to Western Shoshone members in the area. Yes, I could sit aside and agree that it is a sell-out, but I have chosen not to. I personally have taken advantage of the many scholarship and internships opportunities my entire undergraduate career. I have chosen to obtain my bachelor’s in environmental science. I have worked in their Environmental Departments focusing on air permitting, water permitting, wildlife and hazardous waste management, soil sampling, water sampling, dewatering issues, and many more. I have done and do my best to move forward with Barrick in a positive way. I learn about the methods of proper gold extraction and what we can do to further prevent environmental degradation and how to properly restore and rehabilitate lands. I want to gain the trust of my people and have them know that my work is solely dedicated to the healing of our ancestral lands.

This past summer I worked on water sampling of a specific well in the area. The company monitors hundreds of seeps and springs in the area (on and off mine lands). The company commits to monitor these and restore water supply and retain water quality in the area so mine dewatering does not affect nor pollute these waters used for wildlife or farmers. I worked to restore water supply to this well named “27-37-44-32” that had a decrease in water discharge and water quality due to being so close to dewatering areas of the open pit. I worked with a contractor to get all required permits to have a new well drilled to an appropriate depth and have solar pumping equipment installed. Water was restored to this spring. This may seem like a small job to some but to me it was huge. Wildlife in the area are reliant on this well and had to go elsewhere for water. Now, they no longer must. Another thing I commit myself to is educating fellow employees of this company. I am in a field where there are not many. I take it upon myself to inform people who are not from the area of the cultural significance to my people. When I can form a professional relationship with them, they respect and listen to what I have to say. If I can instill any appreciation into them for the lands, then I will do so any chance I get.

In modern society, gold mining has become a necessity to the way we live our lives. Historic events have proved that anthropocentric and Judeo-Christian views on nature have led to environmental degradation in many different locations across the world. Northern Nevada has been faced with years and years of gold mining exploitation and the environmental consequences that come with. Preservationists and stakeholders who place a biocentric value on nature have tried to combat the extraction of gold to save the environment from poisoning and contamination. Upon having their positive advances decline by major organizations, corporations, and our very own government, stakeholders have been defeated. Western Shoshone have no choice but to conform their preservationists’ efforts to conservationists’ efforts. Western Shoshone will not give up the fight for environmental protection for their lands, but they have learned they can not win against the largest mining company in the world. Therefore, we must educate ourselves and others on what we can do to further prevent degradation.

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