Picture a gold mine, and your brain probably whips up something delightfully anachronistic—a 49er with a pickaxe maybe, or a wheeled metallic basin emerging from a mine shaft on railroad tracks, overflowing with glittering rocks. Or maybe that’s just me, a result of growing up in Northern California, in ex-gold rush country.
Either way, it’s ridiculous. Obviously. These days, gold mines are often massive industrial operations, and most use complex extraction machinery and thousands of gallons of cyanide to separate the gold from rock.
To illustrate, allow me to detail the next gold mine to be born in the U.S. A detailed proposal has been sent to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for a new gold mine, the Keiwit Project, in Toole County, Utah. It would be the first ever built in the region. Its operators hope to process millions of tons of ore over six years in order to extract gold, silver, and arsenic from the rock. But to do it, they’re going to need to ship in over ten thousand gallons of cyanide from Nevada.
Deseret News, a local Utah paper, reports that
“cyanide would be trucked to the site from Nevada from a company with employees certified in safety procedures for handling the compound. At the Kiewit site, a lined, 12,000-gallon tank of the material would sit inside a secondary container on top of another liner.”
If that sounds crazy, it isn’t. The report notes that 90% of modern gold mines use cyanide, and the practice has been around since the late 1800s. Rick Havenstrite, the president of Desert Hawk, the Seattle mining company aiming to get the mine approved, explains how it works:
“Basically, the mounds of rock are piled on a lined pad that receive a cyanide solution through a drip application. We mine it, crush it and sprinkle it on. Cyanide bonds to the gold and silver and carries it out. They are all in liquid form."
And the cyanide is coming from Nevada because that’s where the gold mines are—over 30 installations use cyanide to grip gold across the state as we speak.
Clearly, it’s an environmental concern—cyanide is highly toxic, and many of these mines are located near groundwater stores. So far, the proposal, which is currently open to public comment in Utah, hasn’t received any pushback. Maybe with the current focus on coal, oil, and gas extraction, old school mining operations for metals and raw materials are simply sliding under the radar.
Either way, it’s worth the quick look at modern gold mining, if only as a reminder that it’s not just fracking, the currently popularized cardinal sin of resource extraction—everything we pull out from the deep dirt these days comes with a risk and a cost.
Top image: A gold mine in Cowal, Australia that uses cyanide in the extraction process.