Sunday, January 31, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gold-Mining Firm Facing Stiff Opposition In Oregon


PORTLAND, Ore. - North America's largest gold-mining company will formally notify Oregon next month of its intent to mine on Grassy Mountain near Vale.

At the same time, a coalition of environmental groups plans to file an initiative petition designed to keep Nevada-based Newmont Mining and others from moving into Eastern Oregon.

Andy Kerr of the Oregon Natural Resources Council says the environmentalists want to send this message: "You may have a right to the gold, but you don't have a right to the land or the water."

Newmont believes it can win over environmentalists. In October, the company paid Atlas Corp. $30 million to lease mining rights at Grassy Mountain for 35 years, with the option to renew the lease for another 30 years.

Newmont expects to develop Oregon's first open-pit gold mine on the mountain, extracting 1.2 million ounces of gold in eight years.

In the late 1980s, about 40,000 gold-mining claims were filed in Eastern Oregon. Although the great majority were abandoned, the state girded for an expected gold rush by writing new regulations to minimize the industry's impact on rivers, ground water, air quality and wildlife. Last year, the Environmental Quality Commission passed cyanide heap-leach mining rules widely regarded as the toughest in the nation.

The Grassy Mountain site is on public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management under the 1872 Mining Act. State and local governments cannot bar mining, but they can regulate the effects on the region's environment.

The initiative the ONRC and The Wilderness Society want to place before voters would impose reclamation requirements so exorbitant no mining company could afford to operate in Oregon.

The initiative would require companies to backfill the pits after mining, return the land to its original contours, seed it with native plants and restore surface waters and underground aquifers.

Companies would be required to exclude wildlife from contact with all chemical solutions and care for the site following the mine's closing.

Newmont already has built a gold-mining empire in northeastern Nevada to capitalize on the cyanide heap-leach technology it pioneered during the past quarter-century.

The technique uses a weak cyanide solution to extract submicroscopic gold particles from low-grade ore. The technology makes it profitable to mine ore once left in the ground, but only if it can be done on a massive scale.

The lowest-grade ore is piled in heaps on pads and treated with a cyanide solution. Higher-grade ore goes into piles to be crushed and milled. Waste rock is dumped in mounds to be contoured, seeded and left on the landscape.

Cyanide heap-leach mining has left a trail of incidents of leakage.

However, Newmont has experienced only one serious cyanide leak in recent years. A cyanide solution leaked from a tailings impoundment into ground water several years ago near their Gold Quarry mine in Nevada. Newmont is now pumping water out of the ground in a project that will continue until no cyanide can be detected.

The company's mine in Carlin, Nev., stretches the length of 12 football fields, slightly smaller than the pit the company hopes to dig at Grassy Mountain.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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