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June 26, 2016

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5-MINUTE EXPERT:

Mining 101: A brief history of the industry in Nevada

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Steve Marcus

An old mining shaft is shown on a hill in Searchlight, Nev. Monday Jan. 20, 2014.

Did you know?

Drones capture data from the air and provide information for computer models that map mines. Unmanned aircraft also track stockpiles and equipment.

Did you know?

The United States was the third-leading gold producer in the world in 2014, meaning Nevada produced 5.4 percent of all the gold in the world.

Did you know?

In 2014, gold mined in Nevada accounted for 72.8 percent of all the gold mined in the United States.

Modern-day mining in Nevada is a high-tech business, not a get-rich-quick dream.

Operators use drones to survey, monstrous trucks to haul and T-Rex-sized power shovels to chomp into the ground. Permits and environmental applications take years to approve.

Technology has transformed the business. But the first step remains the same: Stake a claim.

HOW TO STAKE A CLAIM

Unlike the old days, mining companies no longer can simply slam a post in the ground and own what’s below the surface dirt. To make a claim, mining companies must inform federal and state agencies that minerals are believed to be underground, pay a slate of fees, then begin a government application process that can last 10 years before a shovel hits the ground. There are two types of mining claims:

• Lode claims cover veins of such mineralized rock as quartz, gold or other metallic minerals that have well-defined boundaries and broad zones. The Bureau of Land Management limits the size of a lode claim to 1,500 feet long and 600 feet wide. Lode claims tend to net the biggest payoff, as they produce year after year. Lodes can continue for many miles underground and contain yields in heavy concentrations.

• Placer claims give people rights to loose minerals, such as sand, gravel or gold that has eroded from rock and washed downstream. Many nonmetallic bedded or layered deposits, such as gypsum and high calcium limestone, also are considered placer deposits. The maximum size of a placer claim for a corporation is 20 acres. With placer claims, people can mine like prospectors — with a simple gold pan and water. Even large-scale operations can strike gold with metal detectors, sluice boxes and dredgers.

INSIDE A MINE

• Nevada has both underground and open pit mines. The underground operations tunnel more than 1,000 feet below ground. Open pits resemble craters with dirt shelves that support trucks hauling debris from as deep as 1,000 feet.

• The hauling trucks that work inside open pit mines measure up to 60 feet long, can carry up to 400 tons and have 5,150 horsepower. Their tires are as tall as a house.

• Power shovels, controlled by a joystick, grasp dirt-covered minerals off of mine walls. Each can bite more than 50 tons.

Did you know?

There are federally administered lands in 19 states, including Nevada, where the public can locate a mining claim or site.

• A mill site must be on nonmineral land. Its purpose is to support a lode or placer mining claim operation. The maximum size of a mill site is 5 acres.

• A tunnel site is where a tunnel is run to develop a vein or lode. It also may be used for the discovery of unknown veins or lodes.

• The average weekly wage for a miner in Nevada is $1,973. There are about 13,300 mining employees in the state.

CONCERNS ABOUT MINING

Many environmentalists worry about the impact of mining on natural resources and the environment, as well as the financial and political power of mining companies.

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C., found that the hardrock mining industry owns gold, silver and other precious metals and minerals beneath an estimated 2.5 million acres of U.S. public land in Nevada. The resources are worth millions of dollars a year, were acquired for as little as 84 cents per acre and are held in perpetuity for a yearly rental fee as low as 62 cents an acre, the group says.

Further, under a 132-year-old law intended to spur development of the West, the mining industry, dominated by a handful of multinational corporations, pays no federal royalties and leaves behind a landscape of dramatically diminished value, the environmentalists say.

Q. How many mines are there in Nevada?

A. Less than 1 percent of Nevada’s land houses mining operations. But the 167,000 acres that are being mined are spread across almost the entire state. Only Carson City and Douglas County have no mines. There are 110 mines in the state, and 2,230 companies connected to their operations. Four mines operate in Clark County. Nye County boasts the most mines — 21.

Massive pit lakes hold contaminated water, hundreds of millions of pounds of chemicals have been dumped by mining operations into Nevada’s water and air, and mines have destroyed forests, eliminated migration grounds and displaced wildlife.

Mining officials say they work hard to mitigate negative impacts associated with mining. For example, before ground is disturbed, companies must ensure that adequate funds are available to complete reclamation and remediation of exploration and mining sites.

To minimize harm to wildlife, operators use measures such as bat gates to allow bats into mines but keep humans and large animals out, and netting, fencing and “bird balls” to prevent birds and other animals from swimming in and drinking from chemical-laden ponds and ditches.

“Any natural resource extraction by definition impacts the environment,” Nevada Mining Association officials say said. “However, it is the manner in which these activities are carried out that is crucial in minimizing adverse effects.”

Water also is essential to mining, but officials say companies minimize waste by recycling water, using salt water that’s unsuitable for agriculture or household uses, and treating water and returning it water to groundwater systems. Companies say they also work to minimize dust, smog and pollution associated with mining.

WHATS IN THE GROUND?

Most people know that gold and silver abound in Nevada. But there are at least 20 other minerals here that help make the state a leading mineral exporter.

Did you know?

Gold is also used as a climate-controlling insulator. That’s why developers of Mandalay Bay placed gold leaf on the resort’s windows.

• Gold: Used in jewelry, coins, dentistry, scientific and electronic instruments

• Silver: Used in currency, electronics, jewelry, batteries, cutlery, medical and scientific equipment

• Copper: Used in pipes, circuitry

• Lithium: Used in cellphones, electric car batteries, lubricants, rocket propellants

• Gypsum: Used in acoustical tiles, prefab wall board, building plaster, cement manufacturing, agriculture

• Lime: Used in stucco, asphalt, pH balancer

• Molybdenum: Used in alloy steel (to make it lighter, more rigid and less corrosive), auto parts, flame retardant

• Barite: Used in drilling muds, bowling balls, medical equipment

• Diatomite: Used in food and beverage filters, pool filers, cat litter, paint

• Petroleum: Used in diesel, kerosene, stove oil, asphalt

• Silica: Used in glass

• Clay: Used in cooking utensils

• Dolomite: Used in nutritional additives, building stone

• Lead: Used in batteries, protective coatings, soundproofing materials, ammunition

• Salt: Used in road de-icing

• Magnesite: Used in refractory materials, chemicals

• Perlite: Used in soil conditioner

• Sand and gravel: Used in concrete, bricks, roads

• Limestone: Used in concrete aggregate, fertilizer and soil conditioner, paints, plastics

• Sulfur: Used in sulfuric acid, fertilizer, chemicals, explosives, fungicides

• Tungsten: Used in electrical machinery, filament for light bulbs, textile dyes

• Zinc: Used in die casting, pennies, rubber, paints, automotive parts, electrical fuses

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