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Desert Gold: Part II

An abandoned mine in Goldfield, Nevada. | Kim Stringfellow.
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The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary and curatorial project led by Kim Stringfellow exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Project reconsiders and establishes multiple ways in which to interpret this unique and complex landscape, through association and connection of seemingly unrelated sites, themes, and subjects thus creating a speculative and immersive experience for our audience.

The General Mining Act of 1872 encourages exploration, claiming and mining of valuable mineral deposits by U.S. citizens of “ordinary prudence” within public lands that are unclaimed and open for mineral entry.[i] The Diggings website states that 3,856,269 mining claims have been recorded within the U.S., of which about 10 percent are currently active. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) lists 139,591 records of mines in North America with California leading the nation with its inventory of 25,673 — more than double that of the runner up, Nevada.[ii] However, the majority of these mines located throughout the U.S. were closed or abandoned long ago.

Numbers aside, the statute is considered by its detractors as archaic, in that it imposed little, if any, regulation in an effort to encourage the development and exploitation of the nation’s mineral resources. Opponents argue that the law provides a “free ride” for mining interests, as no royalty has ever been levied on profits earned on metallic minerals over the nearly 150 years the act has been in place. It is estimated that $400 billion worth of gold and other lucrative minerals have been extracted in public lands without the American public receiving a dollar in return even though $1 billion of metal continues to be mined annually.[iii]

In addition, the per-acre patent fees allowing for the outright purchase of mineral-bearing of public lands — originally set at $2.50 for placer claims and $5 for lode claims while patenting was active, had not been raised since President Ulysses S. Grant first enacted the law. Although Congress imposed a moratorium on mineral patent applications on October 1, 1994 and no new patents have been issued since, mining watchdog groups argue that more than three million acres of public land have been “given away” for a pittance to foreign and domestic mining entities since 1867.[iv] For instance, Canadian-owned Barrick Gold Corporation, which owns 75 percent of gold mining interests in Nevada, secured patents for over 1,800 acres of public land in 1994, just before mineral patenting had ended, for around the price of $9,000 — at the time estimated to yield over $10 billion worth of gold. In 2018 alone, Barrick’s worldwide operations generated $7.24 billion and provided their shareholders with a 33 percent increase in annual dividends.[v]

Elmer J. Chutes’ 1907 historic illustrated map of Goldfield Mining District land patents and location surveys. | Courtesy of University of Las Vegas, Libraries.
Elmer J. Chutes’ 1907 historic illustrated map of Goldfield Mining District land patents and location surveys. | Courtesy of University of Las Vegas, Libraries.

More perplexing is the fact that lawmakers have mostly failed to amend or modernize the 1872 law on these and other key issues. For instance, multinational mining corporations (many Canadian and foreign owned) operate within U.S. public lands without paying a cent on gold, silver, copper and the other valuable metallic minerals from which they profit most handsomely.[vi] In contrast, the federal government collects annual royalties from 8 to 17 percent from corporations extracting coal, oil and gas within U.S. public land and waters — representing billions of dollars in royalties. The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Campaign for Responsible Mining estimates the federal government, along with taxpayers loses, at minimum, $160 million annually by failing not to impose similar levies on the hardrock metallic mining industry.[vii]

A newly constructed headframe of a "hobby mine" with numerous historic Goldfield mines pictured in the distance. | Kim Stringfellow.
A newly constructed headframe of a "hobby mine" with numerous historic Goldfield mines pictured in the distance. | Kim Stringfellow.

Some bold U.S. lawmakers have sought to reform the industry’s egregious tax breaks and hefty federal subsidies, dubbed “reverse royalties,” beginning as early as the mid-1860s — but with little success. The late Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers had an ongoing annual debate on this divisive issue with Nevada Senator Harry Reid over an eight-year period beginning in the early 1990s. It should be noted that both Senators are Democrats. Reid, born and raised in Searchlight, Nevada, a dusty gold town sixty miles south of Las Vegas, explains his hardline and unrelenting support of the mining industry.[viii] Reid’s opponent, Bumpers, considered the 1872 law to be “a license to steal and a colossal scam.” Bumpers fought hard during his Senate tenure to see the act reformed — but to no avail — having stated that members of Congress “who perpetuated this unbelievable scam are never held accountable, because the public knows little, if anything, about the abuse.”[ix]

Although several bills have been introduced in recent years seeking to impose royalties on corporate mining profits — including one unsuccessful bid in 1993 by former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt — mining special interest groups such as the National Mining Association have also lobbied hard and very successfully to keep bills from passing, arguing that they pay their share of taxes and provide rural jobs. Babbitt’s push fell flat after Reid publicly opposed his bill along with another one that would have eliminated a tax break for corporate mining companies — saving them around $327 million a year in taxes.[x] As long as Reid remained in office he would continue to thwart any similar bill that came his way.

A view of Columbia Mountain, Goldfield, Nevada. Just north of the peak are the infamous Sandstorm group of claims that launched Goldfield’s rush in 1902. | Kim Stringfellow.
A view of Columbia Mountain, Goldfield, Nevada. Just north of the peak are the infamous Sandstorm group of claims that launched Goldfield’s rush in 1902. | Kim Stringfellow.

A later effort to reign in industrial mining activities occurred in 2007 when the House of Representatives passed The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act that would, if enacted, levy a 4 percent royalty on existing mining at unpatented claims and 8 percent on any new mining operation. Private or previously patented claims were to be exempt. Seventy percent of the royalty fees were to be set aside to remediate abandoned mining claims with the remaining 30 percent given out as aid to communities negatively affected by such activities. Even the Bush administration toyed with the idea implementing royalties on metal mining production.[xi] In contrast, during his 2007 presidential election campaign, then Senator Barrack Obama balked at imposing royalties on mining interests commenting, “legislation that’s been proposed places a significant burden on the mining industry and could have a significant impact on jobs.”[xii] Nevada, as it turned out, is a crucial swing state. The U.S. Senate eventually killed the bill in 2009. Another version of this bill similarly died in 2011.

Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) have co-sponsored a reform bill in 2019 that would require a 12.5 percent royalty on any new hardrock mining operation and an 8 percent royalty on existing ones — making more than $50,000 in annual income. With this bill, 25 percent of the collected revenues would go to the state where the mine is located and the rest will supplement a federal reclamation fund.[xiii]

Notably, 18th and early 19th century mining operations were miniscule in scale compared to today’s open pit cyanide heap leach operations. Consider the massive scale of the largest gold mine in North America — the Goldstrike Mine owned by Barrick Gold Corporation — geographically positioned along the microscopically gold-rich Carlin Trend of northeastern Nevada. The company’s website states that the “ultimate pit will measure approximately two miles east to west, 1.5 mi[les] north to south, and have an average depth of approximately 1,300 ft.”[xiv]

Regardless of their physical footprints, many smaller historical mines have resulted in lingering environmental damage, dangerous physical safety hazards and, at times, staggering ecological devastation. Thousands of historic, abandoned small-scale mining operations remain physically accessible and many require extensive environmental site remediation. With owners long gone or bankrupt, the federal government and consequently, the taxpayer, are left to foot the bill.

The Consolidated Mine adjacent to Tom O’Donnell’s home in Randsburg, California. A couple of old timers worked this underground mine into the 1980s. It has been shuttered since. | Kim Stringfellow.
The Consolidated Mine adjacent to Tom O’Donnell’s home in Randsburg, California. A couple of old timers worked this underground mine into the 1980s. It has been shuttered since. | Kim Stringfellow.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages these abandoned extractive follies on public lands throughout the West. Although the actual number of historic mining sites in the California Desert District is unknown, a 2014 USGS study estimates that there are 22,730 abandoned mine sites with 79,757 individual features located across 35 million acres of arid lands of central and southern California. The BLM’s Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program, whose mission is to “mitigate and remediate hard rock AML sites on or affecting public lands” suggests that within the Mojave Desert region there are 17,060 AML sites alone that require further study and possible remediation.[xv]

It should come as no surprise that the 1872 act did not include a requirement for post-operational mining reclamation — the idea was simply unheard of at the time. It would take 100 years — with the passing of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) in 1976 — for specific reclamation requirements to be implemented once mining operations ceased. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977 was then federally enacted by the Carter administration to counter the environmental effects of coal strip mining. SMCRA additionally administers abandoned mines on federal lands and requires all active mining operations to post a bond to ensure that adequate funds are set aside for reclamation purposes. Two years before SMCRA, the California state legislature enacted The Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA) of 1975, “to address the need for a continuing supply of mineral resources, and to prevent or minimize the negative impacts of surface mining to public health, property and the environment.”

In 2003, the California State Mining and Geology Board adopted regulations requiring the backfilling of open pit metallic mines within the state “to a condition that approximates the natural condition of the surrounding land and topography.”[xvi] Although most large open pit metallic mines are not required to fully backfill the excavated pit upon closure, they must recontour the pit’s slopes to lessen the steepness of the grade. Spent heap leach pads, overburden and waste piles, sometimes miles in length, must be graded and revegetated. All mine buildings, mills and other structures must be dismantled and torn down.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists industrial metallic mining as the largest toxic polluter in the nation. Consequently, many former mining sites require costly, and mostly continuous, environmental, health and/or safety remediation. Closure or reclamation bonds have been mandatory for mineral mining operations in the U.S. since 1977 in an effort to guarantee that former mining sites will be properly remediated and reclaimed once operations cease. It is important to note that a number of mining companies have been shown to be inadequately financed due to the fact that they are “self-bonded.” Once bankrupt, these same mining operations abandon the site, leaving future cleanup costs in the hands of the taxpayer — illustrating how current financial assurance of reclamation bonds fails to cover the true, long-term cost of reclamation.

Responding to the failed self-bonding practice, the Obama administration later mandated that the EPA force hardrock mining operations to secure separate sources for mine clean up funding. The Trump administration, which is unraveling years of hard-won environmental regulation at many federal agencies, reversed this decision in late 2017. The reversal is being contested in court as it violates the 1980 law that spawned the Superfund program. Further, the Trump administration has very enthusiastically reopened 1.3 million acres (more than 2,000 square miles) of mining claims within California deserts during 2018 that had been previously made off-limits for extractive industry use by the Obama administration.

All in all, open pit, industrial-scale metallic extraction processes — especially those involving the cyanide heap leach method — are extremely problematic on a multitude of levels, so a detailed overview of its history and process is warranted.

A small section of RMC’s spent heap leach pad. Notice how the mountain of ore has been graded to appear more natural. | Kim Stringfellow.
A small section of RMC’s spent heap leach pad. Notice how the mountain of ore has been graded to appear more natural. | Kim Stringfellow.

Cyanidation is a hydrometallurgical leaching method where aqueous cyanide is used to dissolve and extract microscopic gold and other precious metals from lower grade ores. As early as 1783, chemists knew that aqueous cyanide solution could dissolve gold, however, it took nearly 100 years for the technique to be refined and utilized at large-scale gold extraction operations.[xvii] In 1887, Scottish mining chemists developed the MacArthur-Forrest cyanide process, which was first implemented successfully at South Africa’s Witwatersrand mining district in 1890. The Mercur Mine in Utah was the first American outfit to make use of the process during the following year. By suspending crushed ore in aqueous cyanide solution, up to 96 percent pure gold could be recovered. Cyanidation would revolutionize and replace the mercury amalgamation process at larger mining operations by the 1920s. Today, the process is used in 90 percent of all gold production worldwide.

Although cyanide is highly toxic and capable of causing immediate death in a variety of forms, it is relatively cheap and readily available for industrial purposes. Cyanide, for the most part, is biodegradable; exposing cyanide to sunlight, oxidizing it with bleach or hydrogen peroxide and allowing microbial processes to convert it into ammonia are ways cyanide is neutralized or broken down.[xviii] Although cyanide is manufactured primarily for industrial mining purposes, it also occurs naturally. A variety of plants and organisms, including some insects, along with certain bacteria, fungi and a surprising number of common vegetables, such as cassava root, along with seeds and pits from a variety of stone fruits, contain a form of the chemical.

The mining industry was once again transformed through an updated variation of the cyanidation process during the 1970s with widespread implementation of industrial-scale, open pit cyanide “heap leaching” — which allows lower-grade gold ores, containing as little as .02 ounces, to be mined profitably. Because conventionally mined, high-grade ore bodies were largely exhausted, mining industry enthusiasts welcomed the technology when the U.S. Bureau of Mines[xix] began promoting the cost-effective technique in 1969. Detractors of the cyanide heap leach method have compared it to “dirt mining.”

Indeed, cyanide heap leach operations require massive earth moving, along with the energy to do so, plus billons of gallons of groundwater for processing ore. At some Nevada heap leach operations, whose production equals three quarters of all gold mined within the United States, up to 100 tons or more of material is unearthed to yield a single ounce of gold.[xx] Earthworks, a mining watchdog group, estimates that the production of one gold wedding ring today generates at least 20 tons of mine waste, along with 13 pounds of toxic emissions containing lead, arsenic, cyanide and mercury. [xxi] The EPA ranks the industrial-scale metallic mining as the nation’s top polluter of chemical compounds released into the environment.[xxii]

The process is designed as a closed loop system where highly alkaline aqueous sodium cyanide solution is dripped or sprayed onto industrial plastic-lined concrete pads laden with massive mountains of ore.[xxiii] Once applied, the oxygenated “lixiviant,” or leaching solution, percolates through the heap, binding with the gold, eventually collecting into underground piping leading to the “preg pond,” which, as its name implies, is “pregnant” with microscopic gold. The process takes several weeks to months to complete — depending on the grain size of the ore and the height of the pad.

This concentrated gold-bearing cyanide liquor is then pumped into the recovery plant where giant vertical tanks containing very fine activated carbon that my friend, Tom O’Donnell, former metallurgist at the Rand Mining Company (RMC)[xxiv] and longtime Randsburg, California resident, gleefully states, “the gold loves.” Attracted to the carbon, the gold abandons the cyanide to wait for further processing. The now-barren cyanide solution is replenished and re-circulated onto the leach pad. If, during the process, the massive mountain of ore somehow collapses — the entire operation is halted so the heap can be bulldozed back onto the pad. The ongoing threat of cyanide escaping this closed loop system is never taken lightly. “You never, ever, let that stuff get off that pad. You got people there 24 hours a day and that is their job to keep that cyanide inside the fence,” O’Donnell states.

After filtering this gold-bearing carbon concoction, caustic soda is added, dissolved and heated, which, in turn, releases the gold from the carbon to produce a highly-concentrated gold-bearing solution. This mixture is pumped into a “cell” with positive and negative termination where it undergoes the electrowinning process first developed in 1807. A strong electrical current causes the gold to collect in the cell’s negatively-charged steel wool that is later recovered by melting the wool with flux in the furnace at around 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Eventually, the iron rises to the surface and the heavier gold sinks to the bottom. The iron and flux is discarded, leaving the remaining gold to be poured and molded into gold doré buttons ready for further refinement.

Magical, yes, but when all is said and done, a number of the world’s biggest cyanide heap leach operations have failed miserably over time. To date, the largest cyanide-related catastrophe in the U.S. occurred at the Summitville Mine in southwestern Colorado. In 1992, after leaching around ten million tons of gold and silver ore over a five-year period, resulting in 160 million gallons of cyanide-laced water, Canadian-based Galactic Resources Ltd. filed for bankruptcy and abandoned the site.

Soon, it was disclosed that nearly 85,000 gallons of cyanide-contaminated waste, along with acid mine drain containing heavy metals, had leaked in the neighboring watershed, including the nearby Alamosa River, completely killing off all fish and other riparian wildlife over a 17-mile stretch of the river.[xxv] The mine became a Superfund site in 1994, eventually requiring $250 million of federal funding for remediation, plus an ongoing $2 million per year bill that Colorado taxpayers will need to continuously pay for many years to come. The Summitville Mine’s owner, Robert Friedland, who holds dual citizenship in both Canada and the U.S, ended up paying only $20 million out of pocket for remediation work of the Alamosa River but took in an estimated gross income of $150 million from the mine while it was operational.[xxvi]

The Zortman-Landusky mines, bordering the Fort Belknap homeland of the Assiniboine (Nakoda) and Gros Ventre (Aaniiih) Nations in the Little Rocky Mountains of north central Montana, provides another example. One of the first heap leach operations in the county, the Zortman-Landusky had numerous cyanide spills while operational with the largest single incident involving 50,000 gallons.[xxvii] Over time, related surface and groundwater pollution has resulted from their gold and silver mining activities in the form of extensive acid mine drainage, plus arsenic, lead and other heavy metal contamination. The mines’ owner, Canadian-based Pegasus Gold Corp., began mining operations in 1979. Nineteen years later, they went bankrupt and walked away from this ongoing water pollution disaster that has to date cost $100 million, along with an additional $2 million a year paid by the state of Montana to contain the contaminated wastewater. Even though Pegasus set aside bond monies for such disasters, as required by law, taxpayers have taken up the bulk of the reclamation costs with the total clean up estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars.

Understandably, a Montana citizen’s initiative banned cyanide heap leach operations in 1998. Wisconsin followed in 2001. Since that time other disastrous spills that have occurred in North America include the 2014 Mount Polley Mine tailings pond dam breach at Imperial Metals in British Columbia and Colorado’s 2015 Gold King Mine acid mine drain spill where the EPA and subcontracted workers charged with cleaning up the abandoned mine ended up accidentally releasing toxic water into the Animas River watershed. Cyanide heap leach operations continue to operate in California and Nevada — even though the EPA states that mining interests have polluted streams in 40 percent of the West’s watersheds.[xxviii] In 2017 alone, metallic-bearing mines generated nearly 2 billion pounds of toxic waste — equaling half the amount produced by all industries combined nationwide.[xxix]

Nevada, the nation’s largest producer of gold, currently allows new mines to begin operations with full disclosure that they will pollute the surrounding watershed — possibly in perpetuity — which could require indefinite remediation to clean up contaminated groundwater, streams and pit lakes. The 2019 Udall/Grijalva bill, if passed, would ban this practice.[xxx]

Jim Kuipers, a hardrock mining engineer consultant, stated in a 2003 Mineral Policy Center report that taxpayers are likely to foot one to $12 billion in projected cleanup costs at hardrock metallic mining sites across the country due to lax regulation and inadequate financial assurance upon mine closure or abandonment. The EPA says this figure is higher — $35 billion or more to remediate abandoned mines found across 32 states.[xxxi]

Retired miner Tom O’Donnell, a.k.a. “Ordinary Tom” in front of his historic home in Randsburg, California. | Kim Stringfellow.
Retired miner Tom O’Donnell, a.k.a. “Ordinary Tom” in front of his historic home in Randsburg, California. | Kim Stringfellow.

But this story is more complicated than it appears at first glance. Tom O’Donnell, a.k.a. “Ordinary Tom,” defends the process, having overseen the cyanide heap operation at RMC from 1989 to 1994. RMC’s 2,520 acres of public and private holdings included the historic Baltic, Lamont and Yellow Aster mine, whose original “glory hole” was subsumed by RMC’s heap leach operation. During active production, RMC, on average, processed 45,000 tons of material ultimately recovering one million ounces of gold over the 11 years the mine complex was operational.[xxxii]

Tom, a kind, gracious, progressively-minded man, now in his mid-sixties, began his career path in the Air Force, where he served in Vietnam as a Crash Rescue Firefighter. Having been honorably discharged from the military in 1968, Tom worked a variety of jobs throughout the western United States and Alaska, including a stint as a photojournalist stringer for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, a cook on a tugboat, a logger and long hauler. After delivering a load to a mine in New Mexico, he was hired on the spot as a hardrock miner, which led him back to Alaska until he returned to New Mexico, eventually enrolling at Socorro’s New Mexico Tech chemistry program. After graduation he worked at a number of western mining operations, including RMC, plus a later stint at Panamint Valley’s Briggs Gold Mine located near Ballarat, California. But by his late thirties, he had already determined that he could physically toil underground for just so long, so overseeing heavy equipment operators, massive earthmovers and construction crews required for this new type of “mining” operation at RMC served him well.

O’Donnell is fascinated by the alchemy of the cyanidation process stating that “we don’t know exactly how the gold complexes with cyanide, or, for that matter, why it releases into the carbon.” When asked about the downside of the cyanide heap leach process, including its poor environmental report card, he’ll defend his work at RMC stressing, “who lives closest to the mines — the miners!” Although our opinions differ about the merits of cyanide heap leach technology and mining microscopic gold and other profitable metals at such a massive scale, I respect Tom immensely, as he is open to debate and willing to consider multiple sides of this contentious issue. Tom, reflective of many other men and women like him, are proud of their careers in the mining industry, which provides much needed skilled and higher-than-average paying jobs in many rural regions of the West. His friendship provides an insider’s look into an industry that I would not have encountered in my day-to-day life if I had not embarked on a project looking closely at the culture and geology of the Mojave Desert.

A bird’s eye view of the Rand Mining Company (RMC) while still operational during 1980s – early 2000s. | Courtesy of BLM.
A bird’s eye view of the Rand Mining Company (RMC) while still operational during 1980s – early 2000s. | Courtesy of BLM.

Large-scale, industrial mining in Randsburg faded out during the early 2000s when RMC shuttered operations, leaving off-roading and related tourism as the primary economic force driving the community. The BLM continues to manage the Rand Mining District’s public lands, including the plethora of abandoned mines surrounding the town.

It should be mentioned too that RMC, like many other industrial operations of similar scale, had its share of accidents and wildlife fatalities, but no single incident was exceptionally newsworthy.[xxxiii] This is perhaps due to the fact that catastrophic surface stream and watershed contamination is less of an issue in the Mojave Desert due to the absence of such pronounced aquatic features near most of the region’s desert mining sites.[xxxiv] Still, these former mining operations present other serious environmental challenges including ground, airborne and groundwater contamination.

In early 2006, it was determined by the Department of the Interior (DOI) that the Rand Mining District (RMD) had severe levels of arsenic contamination measuring 4,700 times higher than what the EPA considers acceptably safe, triggering a rarely-enforced DOI Flash Report.[xxxv] Arsenic is a common, naturally occurring element. Generally, it is a significant component of gold deposits found within the western United States. In areas that have been extensively mined, arsenic levels are often elevated, which can lead to environmental contamination.

Abandoned mill machinery with an arsenic hazard warning sign shown in the foreground. | Kim Stringfellow.
Abandoned mill machinery with an arsenic hazard warning sign shown in the foreground. | Kim Stringfellow.

This well-known poison can be toxic and can cause mortality to both humans and wildlife. Mining processes unearth and concentrate arsenic in spent mine tailings and waste ponds, which sometimes leads to groundwater contamination. The 2007 DOI report identified “arsenic contamination in over 3,000 acres of mine tailings and 500,000 tons of additional mining-related waste rock” within the RMD, estimating the cleanup cost at $170 million — at the time considered to be the largest BLM remediation project in its history.[xxxvi] Responding to the DOI report, the BLM initiated their Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program in 2009 to deal with the issue.

In addition to arsenic contamination, high levels of toxic mercury, lead and other heavy metals were also measured throughout the site, but airborne arsenic hazard carried by dry desert winds and exacerbated by recreational off-road use is still the main health concern. The 2007 DOI report listed as many as 30,000 visitors utilizing the area on holiday weekends. For many years, off-roaders drove on the popular Route 110 trail leading across a 60-acre arsenic-contaminated former mill site before it was closed in 2007 due to its potential to expose riders to toxic dust. Off-highway vehicle (OHV) trails on desert public lands within the surrounding area were posted with warning signs and/or cordoned off, thus limiting recreational access.

Route 110, a popular OHV trail managed by the BLM parallels Randsburg’s old mill. The trail was shut down for a time while BLM oversaw remediated the site for arsenic contamination. | Kim Stringfellow.
Route 110, a popular OHV trail managed by the BLM parallels Randsburg’s old mill. The trail was shut down for a time while BLM oversaw remediated the site for arsenic contamination. | Kim Stringfellow.

Because Randsburg is economically dependent on OHV recreation and related tourism, the closures proved controversial for business owners and many local residents. After BLM oversaw mitigation work at the mill site that included fencing off and capping the arsenic hazard with an earthen berm, rerouting Route 110 alongside the fence line and posting arsenic warning signs, the trail was reopened to riders. When asked about the arsenic contamination, O’Donnell casually brushes the issue aside commenting, “Well, no one in town has died from arsenic as far as I know and we’ve have had our share of old timers that have lived to nearly 100.”

A solo dirt bike rider motors by Randsburg’s defunct mill site that is considered by federal authorities to be highly contaminated with arsenic from historic mining activity in the area. | Kim Stringfellow.
A solo dirt bike rider motors by Randsburg’s defunct mill site that is considered by federal authorities to be highly contaminated with arsenic from historic mining activity in the area. | Kim Stringfellow.

In 1984 and 1997, the BLM allowed Randsburg and other area residents to purchase titles to their properties, but only if buyers agreed to indemnify or hold harmless the federal government in regard to exposure to hazardous materials from mining activities. BLM supervisors had known about the district’s arsenic contamination for decades but failed to officially test and assess how widespread and serious the hazard actually was. A 2008 DOI audit report additionally criticized the agency for its marginalization of the arsenic contamination issue along with its neglect to identify and secure physical hazards at the many abandoned mines found across the public lands they manage. Indeed, the report stated that some BLM employees had even received threats after identifying grossly contaminated or unsafe former mining sites because their supervisors worried, that in some cases, by identifying the hazard the agency would be more susceptible to lawsuits.[xxxvii]

True, these physical safety hazards are not exaggerated. Every year, curious explorers of abandoned mines, both seasoned and amateur, along with a number of unwary victims, are seriously injured or even die after knowingly or unknowingly entering one of these many dark, subterranean spaces. Accidents include falling or driving vehicles into shafts, encountering poisonous gasses (or no air at all) deep inside tunnels, drowning in flooded chasms, being crushed when aging mine support structures fail, or even being blown to bits by long-forgotten stashes of dynamite.

Forty plus accidental deaths have been documented in abandoned California desert mines since the mid-1970s. In separate incidents, three people accidentally fell to their death upon entering the “ant trap” funnel mine shaft of the Goat Basin Mine bordering the eastern edge of Joshua Tree National Park. Several deaths have occurred in the Rand Mining District, including that of 21-year-old Matthew Frey, who would plunge to his demise in November 2004 after riding his motorcycle up a moderate incline and falling into a 700-foot-abyss in the neighboring Spangler Hills OHV area.

Stray detonators and blasting caps found within the Goldfield Mining District may trigger long forgotten explosives. This warning display is posted in the Esmeralda County Courthouse, Goldfield, Nevada. | Kim Stringfellow.
Stray detonators and blasting caps found within the Goldfield Mining District may trigger long forgotten explosives. This warning display is posted in the Esmeralda County Courthouse, Goldfield, Nevada. | Kim Stringfellow.

Two years before Frey’s death, a 14-year-old boy would be luckier — this dirt bike rider would tumble into a nearby 780-foot shaft but was saved after landing on a support beam some 200-feet below. Sterling White, who administers the BLM’s California AML program, commented that Randsburg’s Baltic Mine area alone had 300 holes his agency had to contend with. In 2019, they will oversee 60 mining-related “features” requiring securing in the Red Mountain area. Indeed, out of the thousands of identified abandoned mining sites, each has up to a dozen hazardous mining-related features that require mitigation. Millions of dollars have been spent so far in an ongoing effort to do so.

Other OHV-related fatalities resulting from falling into abandoned mines would occur in the Calico Hills OHV area and other areas of the Mojave Desert. In 2007, a young girl died when she and her sister accidently drove their all-terrain vehicle into a 125-foot mineshaft while riding in the Windy Point Recreation area outside of Kingman, Arizona. Unsuspecting tourists have nearly backed into holes large enough to swallow entire vehicles. A rancher on horseback survived a fall into a collapsed horizontal shaft, or adit. Dogs have been successfully rescued, but certainly this has not been case for the multitude of livestock and wildlife that have unwittingly plunged to their deaths. Sadly, dead bodies are sporadically found dumped in mineshafts as well. The BLM, NPS, private landowners and even recreational off-roading clubs such as the Havasu 4 Wheelers have secured some of the most egregious hazards, often using steel bat gates, but many remain humanly accessible — sometimes because fences or warning signs are illegally removed. Still, the BLM discourages community involvement because anyone or group doing so then becomes legally liable for any accident or death that may occur after the modification.

A July 2008 U.S. Department of the Interior’s Audit Report documenting abandoned mine lands’ hazards located in Arizona, California and Nevada.
A July 2008 U.S. Department of the Interior’s Audit Report documenting abandoned mine lands’ hazards located in Arizona, California and Nevada.

Abandoned underground mines have found reuse as Cold War-era bomb shelters, and more creatively, as a community-led time capsule project. Various municipal civil defense entities have in the past outfitted subterranean spaces for nuclear fallout shelters — some equipped with enough supplies to support 17,000 survivors, provide decontamination, plus a water supply. Such was the case of U.S. Borax’s tunnel shelter constructed within the old Suckow colemanite mine, now part of the open pit Rio Tinto Mine in Boron, California.[xxxviii] Victorville provided a similar service for 200 individuals at the nearby Apex Mine. The Sidewinder Mine, located between Victorville and Barstow, could host 859 people in the event of a nuclear war, providing them with a 200-bed hospital, a library and exercise room in exchange for materials, cash and/or labor to secure their spot. A seed bank was also housed here.

Rosamond, California’s 300-foot long Tropico Time Tunnel, housed in a former gold mine[xxxix] of the same