July 6, 2022 

Some Chemistry, 101

 By Robert S. Shoemaker


 Published in the Mountain Messenger - August 30, 2012


I have two degrees in chemistry and one in metallurgical engineering. I have been the president of both the Society of Mining, Metallurgical and Exploration Engineers and the Mining and Metallurgical Society of America. I have designed, built, or operated over 100 gold recovery plants. I would like to straight out several misconceptions about the mining industry that are being bandied about by the Environmental Protection agency and a number of so-called environmental organizations.
The State of California (backed by extreme and uninformed environmental activists and the EPA) has sued the Newmont Mining Company again. Newmont has just paid millions of dollars for an ill-conceived and unnecessary system to purify the water from the Magenta drain from the Empire Mine. Now the government claims “the contamination left behind at the Empire Mine Park by Newmont (58 years ago) poses a substantial risk of harm to the environment and human health.” With such a “risk of harm” where in the world are the five millions plus visitors and the swarm of rangers who must have been either sick or dead from visiting the Empire Mine Park in the last 60 or 70 years?
California gold mining was carried out over an area approximately 6,000 square miles and over a time span of 100 years. No person or child has ever become sick or died from the cyanide or mercury that was used by those mines. Additionally, no one has ever been sick or died from eating fish that contained mercury. Arsenic, another EPA whipping boy, has been used for centuries as a curative, a cosmetic and a poison. It is commonly found combined with salt or talcum powder. Unfortunately, the EPA (in order to further its expansive bureaucratic self-interest) calls it a carcinogen (for which there is absolutely no scientific basis): arsenopyrite has never caused anyone to become sick or die.
The Empire Mine Park has recently spent a large amount of money to excavate and haul to a hazardous waste dump the surface of their horse and human trails and replace it with quartz rock. The EPA claims that horses and humans walking on the diorite rock that contained tiny bits of arsenopyrite would generate toxic dust. If this were true, the thousands of miners who worked for more than a hundred years in the mines would have died from inhaling the underground dust which is the same diorite material. The EPA has obviously not performed any scientifically rigorous test work that would back up their claim that dust raised by walking horses or humans would be harmful.
And now for cyanide. Cyanide is made in solid briquettes (the size of charcoal briquettes) and shipped in heavy steel boxes. Among its many uses, cyanide has been used for recovering gold from ores since the procedure was discovered in 1889; it has been used in some 20,000 gold extraction plants. Since 1889 there has never been a cyanide death in the mining industry and yet the Sierra Fund continues to spout lies to scare everyone from the first-graders to the grandmothers.   Actually, cyanide is lighter than air and immediately starts to rise to the atmosphere where it combines with other compounds and becomes harmless.
Just remember, we are all environmentalists, but sound environmentalism must be based on science, not on rumor, innuendo, and pseudo-science. It is long past time the EPA is reined in from forcing billions of dollars of expenditures by private citizens and businesses based on worthless pseudo chemistry.
This is a plea to those who are serious environmentalists to do your homework before supporting expensive programs that are unnecessary and take attention and resources away from truly responsible environmental efforts. And don’t forget, everything you have, own or eat has a beginning in the mining industry.



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