Environmental Impact of Gold Ore Processing

Conger, H. M.
Organization: Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration
Pages: 4
Publication Date: Jan 1, 1992
I'm really very pleased to be talking with you today about the environmental impacts of gold ore processing as part of this symposium on emerging process technologies for a cleaner environment. But before I talk about some of the newer developments that are coming, I would like to set the stage by reviewing some of the recent past. Over the last decade or so the U.S. gold mining industry has experienced remarkable growth, primarily in heap leaching operations, and not surprisingly there has been parallel growth of environmental regulations. At Homestake, we have had the excitement of bringing on-line a new mine embodying state-of-the-art technology and environmental planning, and during the same period the flagship of our company, the Homestake mine, has been brought into modern day compliance through the application of innovative environmental technology. This has been a learning process; in both cases we found that we had to develop new ways to meet our objectives. At our McLaughlin mine in California a major achievement was pioneering the use of pressure oxidation, or autoclaves, for refractory gold ores, and at the Homestake it was the development of a unique bio-treatment plant for wastewater. These projects were developed balancing operational goals, environmental concerns and costs, and I would submit that being cost-effective is our greatest challenge in the development of new, environmentally sound, process technology. In meeting that challenge, our job has not been made any easier by the myriad environmental laws and regulations that directly affect the design and operation of our facilities. Most of these constraints have evolved through the political process more or less independently, but in their application there often are over-lapping provisions. Adding to this complexity is the fact that action takes place in both state and federal arenas. As a result, state and federal roles sometimes become intertwined, and a good case in point is provided by various cyanide issues faced by gold producers. The vast majority of U.S. gold mining takes place in the so-called "mineral States," the western States that come under the Mining Law of 1872 as amended. This is the basic statute that provides for access and tenure to develop mineral resources on federal lands in those states. There is gold mining outside the defined mineral States, and there is also gold mining in the mineral States on private lands. Our own Homestake mine in South Dakota is one of the best examples of the latter category: located entirely on private land, it is nevertheless subject to at least 13 federal environmental statutes and some 29 federal regulatory requirements. There are also nine significant state statutory and regulatory requirements that apply. On federal lands in the mineral States there are numerous federal statutes and regulations which affect mining, over and above the current Mining Law. These, which are in addition to the laws applying to private land, include the National Environmental Protection Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, among others. Still, those who advocate radical changes in the basic Mining Law would have us believe that sweeping environmental protection and reclamation provisions, not to mention new land use restrictions, are needed. Such changes could effectively prohibit mining on the federal public lands. Strict enforcement of our current Mining Law would have presented most of the abuses cited by the critics but if the Law is to be changed at all, I believe that, at a minimum, the principles of self-initiation and security of tenure embodied in the present statute should be maintained. These are critically important concepts, but there are other statutory and regulatory issues constantly before us as gold miners. Let me cite a few examples: Reauthorization of RCRA There are several bills being considered by Congress to amend the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) that have as their theme
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