A New Gold Rush Leaves A Mark In Southwestern States

By Ruxandra Guidi
May 10, 2011

Photo by Ruxandra Guidi
One of the giant trucks inside the Mesquite gold mine which transports the soil with gold particles from the pit to the leaching pad around the clock.

EL CENTRO, Calif. -- The Mesquite gold mine is in the middle of nowhere; an enormous pit carved from the ancient rock in California’s Imperial Sand Dunes, 20 miles from the Mexico border. The site is next to a large landfill, and a military bombing range.

Standing in the middle of all this is a nondescript office in a mobile home. Community relations manager Luis Plancarte faced a chart with large yellow blocks of color, marking the areas at Mesquite that contain the most gold.

“This map back here shows all the places we drilled and got samples," said Plancarte. "So you can see out here it was less interesting—we drilled and didn’t find anything. Here, we drilled and it’s like hmmmm.”

Plancarte and mine managers are pleased because the price of gold in the international market has risen by more than five times in the last decade. It’s going for about $1,400 an ounce. But in some parts of this mine, there’s gold worth even $2,000 and $3,000 an ounce, because it’s more concentrated within the rock.

Plancarte got in his pick-up truck and drove to Big Chief, an historic pit from the late 1800s. In about an hour, the crew was to use dynamite to blow up a corner of it.

Photo by Ruxandra Guidi
Luis Plancarte stands on the edge of the Big Chief pit at the Mesquite gold mine in the Imperial Valley.

“When we blast, what we do is drill a series of about 33 foot deep holes," said Plancarte. "And the purpose of the blast is primarily to soften the dirt so that as the shovel digs, it can dig easier.”

The dirt has a low concentration of gold, which is then taken to a facility where it’s sprayed with a cyanide solution so the gold particles can be separated from the carbon. This process is known as heap leaching.

Within minutes, the trucks moving the heaps of rock and soil stopped in their tracks, and the radio system began the countdown for the blast. The explosion looked tiny given the enormity of this landscape.

“Over the 25 years or so that they were mining here before us, they mined about 3 million ounces of gold or so from here," said Jerry Hepworth, Mesquite mine's environmental manager. "And we’re hoping to get almost the same amount in our lifetime here too.”

Mesquite is said to have another 12 years’ worth of gold mining in its future, at the current rate of 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That could yield as much as $6 billion. They’re keeping at least 230 local people employed.

After the gold runs out, the Canadian company that owns Mesquite, New Gold, says it plans to stay at this location and develop other precious resources out in the Imperial Valley: solar and wind energy. But even with that green forecast for the future, today’s mechanized, large-scale mining will leave a toxic legacy--just like dozens of California and Nevada gold mines have done in the last 200 years.

That’s what concerns environmentalists like Nick Ervin. "Ultimately, it's a big scar on the land," said Ervin, a longtime desert conservationist in southern California.

Photo by Ruxandra Guidi
A leaching pad covers a pool of a cyanide diluted mix with gold particles, where the mineral will be separated from the carbon.

Mineral extraction is damaging to the environment: the use of cyanide can interrupt wildlife corridors, and harm the land, and humans--for now and many generations to come, said Ervin.

“While you're mining, it's a source of air pollution. And with cyanide heap leach mining, you have the leftover cyanide solution collected in usually now covered ponds, but whether of not those will not leak, it's still an open question," he added.

Ervin warned against this modern-day gold rush in the Southwest, which promises economic development yet leaves damaged desert ecosystems behind.