Goldstrike Open Pit Mine

July 27, 2010

By Debbie Coffey
Copyright 2010 All Rights Reserved

Just one mine in Nevada (Barrick Gold’s Goldstrike Mine) has pumped over 383 BILLION gallons of water from an aquifer.  (and that was a 2005 statistic, so it’s much more than that by now)  According to a New York Times article by Kirk Johnson, nearly 10 million gallons of water a day is draining away from the driest state in the nation.

To make one gold wedding band, about 20 tons of earth must be excavated.

Large scale open-pit mining takes millions of gallons of water, mostly to dilute the cyanide used to soak the ore and separate its microscopic bits of gold.  About 20 of Nevada’s major gold mines may not last much longer than 2015, but that’s when the biggest problems will begin.  The vast pits they leave behind will create a deficit in the aquifer, and scientists estimate it could take 200 years or more to replenish the groundwater.

When these mines close, about 40 pits, from Goldstrike’s Betze-Post to smaller mines like Newmont’s Lone Tree, will start to fill with water.  These artificial lakes will store an estimated 500 billion gallons or more of water.  This sounds good, BUT in the hot desert sun, the water will constantly evaporate, and for every gallon of evaporation, the lakes will draw another gallon from the aquifer beneath themThey will be sucking water from the aquifer forever.  Some lakes are expected to be poisonous (laced with arsenic and selenium) and others may have metal and acid concentrations toxic to fish. 

Tom Myers, PhD, a Hydrologic Consultant, wrote that “when mines extend below the water table, they must pump the local aquifers to keep their pit or shafts dry.  This lowers the water tables near the mine…once pits refill with water, they will evaporate in perpetuity.”

The Great Basin Resource Watch gives a good explanation of how this works:

“Open pit mines are so deep that they reach below the groundwater table.  Therefore, groundwater must be pumped from around the pits to keep the water from seeping inside while mining occurs.  These mines have drained up to 70,000 gallons of groundwater per minute, and the pumps run 24 hours a day.  The state of Nevada provides very little oversight of the mine’s use of groundwater.

Springs and streams in northern Nevada are drying up.  Surface water is contaminated with arsenic and other heavy metals, and groundwater is contaminated when water is re-injected into the aquifer, leaving less water for wildlife and other uses.

After a mine closes, the problem gets worse.  While the mine is in operation, pumping drains the aquifer in the area surrounding the open pit, creating an area devoid of water or a ‘cone of depression.’  When the mine closes and pumping stops, the groundwater is sucked back into the cone of depression as the system tries to reach equilibrium.  The pit, formerly full of rock, but now empty, will pull groundwater from the surrounding areas for decades, and it can affect surface and groundwater flows up to 50 square miles away.

…a Bureau of Land Management Study in 1999 discovered that impacts were severe.  Not only were groundwater and surface water flows affected, but sinkholes appeared within 10 miles of the Barrick Goldstrike mine.”

The New York Times article also revealed that a mine called Sleeper, which was operated until 1996 by Amax Gold and is now closed, filled with water and is losing about 257 million gallons of water to evaporation.  The lost water had to be accounted for in the state’s water ledgers.  A state engineer came up with a novel legal interpretation.  He declared that the pit lake would be used for recreation, and that its evaporation would therefore be a “recreational use.”

What “uses” will be found for all of the other pit lakes?

Also, Michael DuBois, an analyst with the Idaho State Department of Environmental Quality, had to figure out why water in the Salmon Falls Creek Reservoir (in Idaho, on the Nevada border) had mercury levels 10 times higher than any other lake in Idaho.  Guess what?  AIRBORNE MERCURY (linked to neurological development in fetuses, infants and children) was coming from Nevada’s gold mines.  This public news in 2005 pressured Nevada to finally begin regulating mercury.  Prior to this, it was barely regulated and from 2001-2005 had only “voluntary” regulation.  Neighboring states will have to deal with the consequences for years to come.  Mercury accumulates in the tissues of fish and birds that pick it up from water sources.

In 2001, Barrick built a $300 million “roaster,” which heats ore for gold extraction and in the process, also frees other metals, like mercury.  BUT BECAUSE IT BUILT THE MACHINE ON PRIVATE LAND, NO STATE OR FEDERAL LAW REQUIRED AN ANALYSIS OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT. The roaster was subsequently identified by the EPA as a main mercury source.

In 2009, there was an injunction against Barrick’s Cortez mine on Mount Tenabo in Nevada.

“A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals granted an injunction to force Barrick Gold Corp. to postpone digging a 2,000-foot deep open pit at the Cortez Hills…the judges in San Francisco said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately analyze the mine’s potential to pollute the air with mercury emissions and dry up scarce water resources in Nevada’s high desert. The project is located on Mount Tenabo, about 250 miles east of Reno.

The appellate judges concluded BLM’s review was inadequate under the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a thorough examination of large-scale projects on federal land. They said the agency didn’t fully consider the air quality impacts resulting from transporting ore to an off-site processing facility 70 miles away.

The judges also said the review didn’t do enough to examine the likelihood that pumping water out of the pit would cause the groundwater level to drop and potentially dry up more than a dozen streams and springs.”

You’d think that knowing all of this, the BLM would try to cut their (or rather OUR) losses.  But the Nevada BLM has new mining projects and they are even expanding Newmont Mining’s Bluestar-Genesis.  (They had an open house in the BLM Elko field office for this in April 2008, and it must’ve been a big success, because it was on the Federal Register on April 8, 2010.)

How could all of this happen?  Believe it or not, the current law is 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 doesn’t mention cleanup.

Meanwhile, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management is rounding up our wild horses with a vengeance because there’s “not enough water for them to drink.”  (A horse only drinks about 10-15 gallons of water a day.)  It seems that DOI Secretary Ken Salazar has spent all of his time envisioning the “new direction” with his Wild Horse and Burro Initiative, which will take our wild horses off their federally protected lands and use taxpayer money to put them on preserves.  Has he taken any initiative to envision a new direction for the mining companies yet?  Has he bothered to come up with a plan to leave a few drops of untainted water for people, livestock and wildlife?

While the DOI and BLM have been ever so busy writing up regulations regarding the wild horses, including giving themselves the right to kill them all, they haven’t bothered to write many regulations for mining companies that are destroying our aquifers and future water supply.

On the BLM website, the BLM states its top priority is to ensure the health of the public lands.  (I’d hate to see what their lowest priority entails.)  What can some horse hooves possibly kick up in comparison to the “disturbance” caused by mining?  Yet, Bob Abbey, Director of the BLM, took the time to make a YouTube video (titled “BLM Wild Horse Strategy”) at Will Bob Abbey make a hard-hitting YouTube follow-up about a BLM plan to round-up the mining industry?


New York Times “Drier, Tainted Nevada May Be Legacy of Gold Rush” by Kirk Johnson (12/30/05) “Mine Dewatering in the Humboldt River Basin of Northern Nevada” by Tom Myers, PhD, Hydrologic Consultant

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “THE MINING OF OUR AQUIFERS: As long as BLM can make a buck who cares if the water is gone?”

  1. LibertyTreeBud says:

    Kill this mining. we don’t need it. let them leave America, who cares? Stop the insanity of these mining operations. we don’t need no stinkin’ gold. We the people need water. CLaim it and kick/kill the scum out. The only thing we have left is the somewhat poisoned air water and earth that these mega-corporations that do NOTHING GOOD for US people who are being screwed. We can do more for more with the remaining water left. Why sit and watch them choke/kill you? ROCK THEM IN THEIR IVORY TOWERS. LET THEM DROWN IN THE BLOOD SWEAT AND TEARS OF THIS LAND. STOP THE INSANITY! KILL THEM OFF!