|LA TIMES ARTICLE ON BRIGGS MINE/BACKFILL|
Published April 9, 2003
|back to Briggs main back to Leave NO Pits|
|Followed by a letter to the editor from Friends of the Panamints|
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Battle Lines Drawn Over Proposal for Mine Near Death Valley Park
A firm hopes to open an 80-acre second pit, but says new state rules would kill the project.
By Julie Cart, Times Staff Writer
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK -- The rocky palisades ringing this desiccated valley are as laden with ore as they are famously inhospitable.
For 150 years, miners have contended with the region's hostile conditions, drawn by the glint that first caught the eyes of forty-niners on their way to the gold fields of the distant Sierra. Besides the malevolent heat and blistering winds, modern miners face intense human opposition in a place steeped in the history of mineral extraction.
The latest dispute involves Canyon Resources, a Colorado-based company that has been mining gold in the Panamint Mountains since 1996 on the southwestern flank of Death Valley, just outside the park. Now the company wants to excavate a second open-pit mine nearby.
Although the firm received permission to begin work on the new mine from the federal government late last year, the state is poised to adopt new regulations that Canyon Resources says could kill the project. Officials of surrounding Inyo County favor the new mine, pointing out that Canyon Resources is the county's fifth-largest taxpayer.
National Park Service officials, local conservation groups and the Timbisha Shoshone tribe -- some of whose members live in the park -- say the open-pit mine, though still outside the park, would impinge on bighorn sheep habitat, poison the valley's groundwater and indelibly scar a landscape sacred to the Indians.
The new site includes 3,000 acres above the Panamint Valley at the park's west end.
Opponents of the mine expansion point out that Canyon Resources has a blemished environmental record, having been fined by Montana officials for allowing mine waste to harm water quality.
The California Wilderness Coalition recently listed the Panamint Valley as one of the state's 10 most threatened wild places, largely because of the proposed mine.
"The Panamint Valley and the range are one of the longest uninterrupted scenic views you can get in California," said Keith Hammond, a member of the coalition. "It's the backdrop of Death Valley. It's a terrible place for an open-pit mine."
The existing mine is tucked into an indentation at the foot of the mountains, so it has been largely hidden. That would not be the case with the new mine. The proposed Cecil R. Jackson mine site is five miles north of the Briggs mine and nearly 4,000 feet higher in the Panamint Mountains. If fully developed, critics say, it would amount to a sprawling industrial operation in plain sight of park visitors.
Opposition to mining near national parks was a signature issue for the Clinton administration, which blocked proposed mines near Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The Bush administration has supported the mining industry more. Last year, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency amended the Clean Water Act to allow coal-mining companies to remove mountaintops and dump debris in streams below. Death Valley has been home to miners since the days of gold-panning forty-niners. Later it was exploited by hardy borax miners with their 20-mule teams. Park attractions feature old mines and restored mining settlements. Prospectors still scratch for gold at claims across the 3.3-million-acre park.
But Death Valley officials have been among the most vociferous critics of the new mine.
"Yes, we have a history of mining here," said park Supt. J.T. Reynolds. "There's a difference between the kind of underground mining the forty-niners practiced and the open-pit mining out there. My concern is about water quality, about bighorn sheep habitat and about aesthetics.
"What kind of experience is this going to be for our visitors? They drive in from the west side. They come to Death Valley and they see that mine. They think it's in the park. I don't like that one bit."Aside from the mine's projected 80-acre open pit -- which would be dug only if sufficient gold is found -- critics say the 25 miles of new roads needed just for exploratory operations would permanently scar the mountainside.
At its April 10 meeting, the state's Mining and Geology Board is expected to impose requirements that all open-pit metal miners refill their excavations and provide financial guarantees that the work can be paid for. If the board adopts the policy, California will be the first state in the nation to mandate such mining reform.
Canyon Resources officials say the proposed rule would put them and every other open-pit gold mining enterprise in the state out of business.
"We will not drill another hole if the regulations go through," said Richard De Voto, company president. "It's going to eliminate an entire industry from the state."
Chris Eckert, environmental coordinator for Canyon Resources' Briggs mine, said the cost of cleaning up the mine site would balloon from $3 million to $50 million to pay for the mandatory pit filling.
He said the siting of the proposed mine, cut into a steep slope, would make it difficult and unsafe to fill.
"You can't backfill the side of a mountain," he said. "You can't put broken rock back in and have a safe mine at closure. You can't get an engineer to sign off on that."
To Bob Strub, who operates a gravel pit in the valley, it is heresy to oppose the new mine. It was gold mining that made local settlement possible more than a century ago, and it is mining that still supports many of the current inhabitants of the region, a swath of high desert across Inyo, Kern and San Bernardino counties.
"It's a good thing, because it's good for the town of Trona and good for the town of Ridgecrest," he said. "The people who work in the mine live in those communities."
The firm has a good environmental record in California, said Hector Villalobos, director of the Ridgecrest office of the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that approved the mine's expansion.
But several environmental groups that have appealed the BLM decision argue that Canyon Resources' record in Montana is reason enough to stop it from expanding in California.
The company was fined $132,000 for polluting water near its Kendall mine in Montana's Moccasin Mountains. According to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the mine continually released contaminants into groundwater.
To people such as Bob Ellis, who hikes the mountains around Death Valley to relieve the stress of working indoors, the issue is cut and dried.
"I've spent 20 years working in the basement of a county building, working as a data processor. It's very clear to me why I need big open spaces: for renewal," said Ellis, who is on the BLM's desert advisory council and objects to the permit the agency granted to Canyon Resources.
Letter to the Editor Responding to above article (unoublished)
Editor, LA Times
Re: Battle Lines Drawn Over Proposal for Mine Near Death Valley Park , Apr 9
J.T. Reynolds, the superintendent of Death Valley National Park, is to be congratulated for his understanding of the situation and his courage and willingness to speak his mind despite the inclinations of the Bush administration.
Mr. Reynolds has good reason to be concerned. The Briggs Mine’s ‘good environmental record’ mentioned in the article comes from a recent commendation from Mike Pool, the California State Director for the Bureau of Land Management. The commendation is based on Briggs’ cleanup of some unrelated sites in the general area of the mine. BLM missed the big picture. Briggs will leave a 112 acre, deep, jagged, open pit and hundreds of acres of high, terraced piles of barren waste rock and ‘ore’ leached of its miniscule gold content (as low as 0.025 ounces gold per ton of rock). I can’t see how this rates a ‘good environmental record’. Commending Briggs for environmental responsibility is the same as commending an arsonist for being the first to report a fire he has set.
BLM’s recently approved permit allows the same mining company to bulldoze 30-40 miles of exploration roads in a nearby small area of steep, undisturbed, desert mountainside, directly in view of one of the main access roads to Death Valley Park. Density of these exploration roads would approach city street density. To issue this permit the BLM had to classify the impact of these roads as insignificant, a classification bordering on ridiculous.
The ugly visual impact of the Briggs Mine on the side of the Panamint Mountains will remain for geologic time. For perspective, consider that the mine’s disturbance will last longer than our species has been in existence. The short term benefits to the local area are miniscule compared to the damage forced onto people as far into the future as anyone alive now can imagine.
Decisions to allow mines like this in situations like this are out of balance. Trading a small short-term benefit for extremely long-term cost is a Faustian bargain. We are selling our heritage to the devil for a pittance.
Friends of the Panamints