You might not see it, but that dirt is full of gold


Matt Hufman

Paul Sierra, a Newmont Mining Corp. driller, looks down a hole in the Leeville mine west of Elko on Sept. 26, 2013. He’s about 2,000 feet underground, preparing holes that will be filled with explosives.

Finding Nevada: Gold Mine Tour

Paul Sierra, a Newmont Mining Corp. driller, looks down a hole in the Leeville mine west of Elko on Sept. 26, 2013. He's about 2,000 feet underground, preparing holes that will be filled with explosives. Launch slideshow »

At Newmont Mining Corp.'s operation west of Elko, there are all kinds of things you'd expect to see — an underground mine, open-pit mines, people in safety equipment, 20-foot-tall dump trucks and piles of ore. But what you don't see is somewhat surprising: Gold.

There are no big veins with shiny nuggets, no "eureka" moments in which miners underground can point to where the metal is. The dark soil is often confused with coal, but this is a gold mine. The operation here is mining "microscopic gold," which is mixed in with other minerals and typically not visible to the naked eye.

Matt Murray, a spokesman for Newmont Mining Corp., said it would be akin to the particulate matter in cigarette smoke.

So there is gold in them hills, you just can't see it.

Miners don't see it either, but they dig, drill and blast and then muck it out, as they would anything else. The ore is processed, and the precious metals — 90 percent or so is gold — is then leached out.

With the type of ore miners are pulling out, it takes about four tons to produce an ounce of gold. And this appears to be an efficient operation.

Full production at the Leeville underground mine started in 2008 with 3,500 tons a day mined, and by 2013, the operation had produced 3 million ounces of gold.

This is ground that would have been passed over — and was — when the Carlin area, where the mine is, was explored in the 1960s.

"Technologies have changed so much," Murray said. "What they considered waste, we consider high-grade (ore)."

Some 2,000 feet under the surface, it looks like mining as usual. Heavy equipment cuts through the dark. Drillers leave holes for explosives crews, who blast the rock to allow muckers to haul it out.

During a tour Thursday, one miner was standing near the end of a tunnel, mucking — or pulling out ore — with a massive machine. He was holding a unit that operates the machine by remote control. The area that had been blasted hadn't been reinforced, so the crew uses remotely operated vehicles in those areas. When the miner has a full load, he pulls the truck several yards up the tunnel to a reinforced area, gets in and then drives it further up the mine to unload it.

Mark Ward, the mine manager, said there's consideration for long-term health and safety issues, and the mine uses remote equipment where possible. It also keeps the miners out of harm's way from a cave-in or a physical injury and will cut down on potential longer-term issues like hearing loss.

For example, further up the mine a steel container sits a few yards from where heavy equipment will crush rocks. Two miners in full safety gear sit in the mine in front of a bank of TV and computer screens that feed in live shots of the equipment. Instead of doing the work standing near the rock crushers, they can operate the equipment from chairs equipped with remote controls.

The workers say they spend probably two-thirds of their shifts in the container doing the work from there.

Still, there's no doubt that this is dangerous and hard work. Mining is still dangerous, and the conditions miners face are still difficult. But this isn't what you might expect if you've been steeped in the history of the West and mining. It's much more sophisticated and scientific, precise and studied.

Later in the day, the tour ventures outside in the snow to a bluff overlooking an open-pit mine. A siren wails, warning workers of an impending blast.

Two thousand feet below a bluff where we're standing, there's a boom and pillars of smoke rise.

Someone yells with the delight of seeing a blast.

That's old-school mining. Even if you can't see the gold.

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