EMPIRE - In what could set a precedent for gold mining across the West, conservationists and tribal leaders appealed today to stop a mining company from dumping waste waters with cyanide and other toxics into the northern Nevada desert.
The opponents say it marks the first time the Bureau of Land Management has granted permission to drain waste materials from a cyanide leach heap into the ground.
They want the Nevada State Environmental Commission to rescind a discharge permit at a hearing today because of potential contamination of groundwater and surface soils in the San Emidio Desert about 75 miles north of Reno and 12 miles south of Gerlach.
''The waste disposal at Wind Mountain threatens the resources of the Pyramid Lake Paiute ancestral lands,'' said Norman Harry, chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in Nixon, Nev.
''And they are already doing what we are appealing,'' said Tom Myers, director of the Great Basin Mine Watch in Reno. ''They are draining the water as we speak.''
The Wind Mountain Mine, now owned by Kinross Gold USA with regional headquarters in Salt Lake City, has been closed for eight years.
From 1989-92, the mine extracted gold and silver by sprinkling cyanide over the heaps of low-grade ore in a mining and milling area of about 820 acres, a little more than a square mile.
That's small by Nevada standards, where mines up to 10 times that large have made the state the third-largest producer of gold in the world, behind South Africa and Australia.
But the critics say the stakes are high, nonetheless.
''It is a tiny, piddly little mine but it would be a precedent-setting decision,'' Myers said.
''It's full of heavy metals and salts. By anyone's definition it is hazardous waste and they want to just put it in the ground,'' he said.
''There are 200 leach heaps like this that have to be closed in Nevada.''
BLM officials insist the practice is safe. They say wastes have been drained into the ground before, although they acknowledge it might be the first time the process has been approved on a project large enough to require an environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act.
''My understanding is that it has been done in Nevada and perhaps other places but that it has not gone through the NEPA process before,'' said Delores Cates, a BLM geologist in Winnemucca in charge of the project review.
The BLM concluded, and the state agrees, that the groundwater is so deep beneath the ground - at least 600 feet - that there's little risk of the toxic materials reaching it.
''Based upon the technical modeling, it was the best scientific evaluation that it was never going to reach the groundwater,'' said Dave Murphy, another BLM geologist in Winnemucca.
''It's not a matter of just saying, 'We're finished, we're going to dump it out there,''' he said. ''We have gone through a long process of trying to improve the water quality in the amount of pollution that was left there.''
But the environmentalists mounting the challenge say the research is flawed.
''The BLM has mostly assumed the impacts away and ignored potential groundwater and soil surface contamination,'' the appeal states.
Myers said the BLM assumed a homogenous of bedrock beneath the ground when in reality, a series of layers exist, with cracks and crevices that don't show up on the government's model - tiny openings that would allow the poisonous materials to make their way to the groundwater.
The mine was owned by Amax Gold Corp. while in operation and produced about 300,000 ounces of gold.
Heap leach mining allows miners to recover microscopic particles of gold and silver by piling low-grade ore on plastic liners, then pouring cyanide over to bind with the precious metals.
When the work is completed, the operators are required to rinse the piles to drain off and collect as much of the toxic materials as possible. But there's always some residue remaining, and how much is safe is at the center of the Wind Mountain Mine dispute.
''We think we've got an excellent solution,'' said Robert Gosik, vice president for environmental affairs for Kinross Gold USA.
''We've developed this plan based on what we believe to be very good science through a fairly high level of scrutiny both by the BLM's NEPA process and the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection,'' Gosik said Monday.
''We feel the environmental impacts are in fact insignificant and not of a level to create any problems,'' he said.
The appeal acknowledges that cyanide concentrations have dropped to less than 0.2 miligrams per liter, within state legal limits. But it says other contaminants continue to exceed legal levels, including chloride, nitrate, selenium and sulfate.
''The heap contains 700 tons of salts and enough selenium to render the groundwater unusuable,'' said Glenn Miller, a University of Nevada-Reno professor who is chairman of the Great Basin Mine Watch.
Myers and Miller said the biggest problem is scientists don't really know enough about cyanide leach mining to handle the wastes responsibly.
''Cyanide leaching is like nuclear waste. They started the things and never figured out how to close them,'' Myers said.
''In general, we feel like we've got a good handle on it,'' Murphy said.
''There are certain assumptions made in any model. Probably no model duplicates what is really in the ground. But to say it was like one homogenous sponge we modeled, that is stretching it,'' he said.
So far, the state agrees with the BLM. The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection issued the mine a water pollution control permit in March, allowing the draining to begin.
The division agreed that though ''unregulated long-term heap draindown discharges to the environment may have the potential to degrade waters of the state,'' it concluded that the project is safe.
''Division's review of the Wind Mountain closure proposal indicates that there will be no degradation of waters of the state, including wet years that may occur over the next 100 years,'' the state division said.