Is Gold Worth the Cost?

by Lynn Boulton

Polaris is the north star, but there is nothing about the direction of this project that inspires or makes one contemplate the wonders of our universe.

The Polaris Exploration Project is a ten-year, gold exploration project in the Bodie Hills surrounding the historic Aurora Mining District. Klondex, a subsidiary of Hecla Nevada, will drill and pull out 1 to 3 core samples at up to 250 different locations in the southeast (Nevada)  corner of the Bodie Hills. They will determine how much gold is in the core samples and will start developing a map of the underground deposits. It is the biggest of the four drilling projects in the Bodie Hills, and it will damage the environment on the south side of the Aurora Crater, the east face of Sawtooth Ridge, and the top and east face of East Brawley Peak.

Only 102 of the drill sites have been identified. Klondex wants to be able to drill the other 148 sites based on the core samples from the first 102 drill sites. They might just "step out" from one of those drill sites 100-300 yards or they might want to drill in a new area. We don't know. Nor does the US Forest Service. In our comments we asked that only known drill sites be approved as part of this project, not the full 250.

A lot of surface disturbance comes with exploratory drilling. Klondex will grade and widen existing Forest Service roads through the project area, widen and grade barely visible two-track roads that were created by people driving off-road, and they will create new, 14-foot wide dirt roads to dozens of drill sites. 102 drill sites measuring up to 90 square feet will be scraped of all vegetation. A bulldozer will dig out a sump pit that should be ramped on one side to allow wildlife to escape if they go in to drink the water. The water will contain cuttings and fluids from the drill that includes various lubricants and additives and rock dust. Each drill hole will use 100,000 gallons.

 

Temporary road in the Bodie Hills

Credit: Lynn Boulton

c. Pic 3 - temporary road

The Polaris plan of operations estimates they will remove 4,000 trees. These will mostly be healthy, mature pinyon trees, but might also include Jeffrey pines, limber pines, or lodgepole pines that grow at the top of the Brawley Peaks.

This may even be an underestimate. Hecla Nevada estimated they would only remove 20 trees at their Sawtooth Ridge Exploration Project. We measured the density of pinyon trees next to three of the sites that they drilled in 2023 and came up with an average of 76 trees that were either removed or buried under the pad at each drill site. This will eventually total an estimate of nearly 1,000 trees at Sawtooth Ridge. They have ten sites left to clear and drill out of the 13 on a densely wooded slope at Sawtooth Ridge. Because Klondex is drilling on a slope, each pad is cut into the hillside, and rock, dirt, and trees are shoved downslope to build up a flat pad.

Drill pad with road leading to it

Credit: Lynn Boulton

c. Pic 1 - drill pad w road to it

Brawley Peak is a subalpine ecosystem with the largest stand of limber pines in the Bodie Hills. It is a remote area of the Bodie Hills and is relatively undisturbed by human activities. There are springs on the mountain, with willows and aspens on its north slope where seven drill sites are planned. Seventeen drill sites will be in a bowl between East and West Brawley Peaks at 9,000 feet. Many of the drill sites are in a sage grouse mating and nesting area. These are the Bi-state Sage Grouse, a distinct population that are in serious decline. They are currently a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The Bodie Hills is the core population of this species.

Does Klondex have the right to destroy the natural habitat and ecosystems of this remote, beautiful area? The 1872 Mining Law is the answer. No environmental law can stop someone from extracting their minerals from the earth if they've claimed them; not even the Endangered Species Act trumps the 1872 Mining Law. A claim gives "dibs" to the minerals in a 1,500'x600' area of land (20 acres) for a one-time filing and location fee of $65 and an annual fee of $165. (The BLM just raised the rate by a whole five dollars on October 1, 2023.) Any U.S. citizen, legal immigrant who wants to be a citizen, or a corporation that has established a business in the U.S. can file a claim. Hecla got its start in the Coeur d'Alene mining district in Idaho, and Klondex started with the Fire Creek mine in Nevada. Both are U.S. Companies.

Mineral exploration companies drill several holes at each drill site in different directions hunting for the veins that have gold. They need to do this at hundreds of locations to create a map of the deposit underground. This means there will be future drilling projects in the area after this one. They need to round up investors in between projects. Each drilling project provides more information and brings them closer to turning the hidden resource into a gold reserve that can be mined. Because the gold is microscopic, gold mines are very large open pits. If the dirt contains low grade ore at 0.05 ounces of gold per ton, then twenty tons of rock need to be removed (two truck-loads), crushed and leached with a sodium cyanide solution to extract just one ounce of gold. It may be only two tons of dirt for higher grades of gold at 0.452 ounces per ton.

While an open pit mine destroys the earth and all that was on the surface, exploratory drilling does a significant amount of damage to the environment too. The roads, drill pads, and sump pits destroy patches of the surface vegetation, and the noise, lights, traffic, and commotion of human activities forces wildlife out of the area for the duration. In the case of the Polaris Project, it will be for ten years. Our only recourse is to ask the Forest Service to require a high level of reclamation and to hold Klondex accountable for following the Forest Service's requirements. We work to let the public know what these projects are doing to our public lands. It is time for a Sierra Club "Beyond Gold" Campaign!

 

Sump pit at existing drill site

Credit: Lynn Boulton

The Polaris Exploration Project

Lynn Boulton graduated from UCSB with a BA in geology. Working in an urban area, she led a tread-lightly lifestyle trying to “walk the talk.” After moving to Lee Vining, she brought the Eastern Sierra into the statewide campaign against bobcat trapping, which led to her serving as chair of the Sierra Club’s Range of Light Group in the Toiyabe Chapter.

Reference

BLM brochure on mining:  https://www.blm.gov/sites/default/files/PublicRoom_Mining_Claims_Brochure-2019.pdf