Proposed Gold Mine Threatens Remote Wildlands, Tests Conservation Designation

Canadian firm SSR Mining plans to drill samples in the Conglomerate Mesa area just east of Owens Lake in the Inyo Mountains, and eventually open a giant gold mine there.  The lands that the company wants to destroy are not just popular among outdoors enthusiasts, they have also been designated by the Bureau of Land Management as part of the National Conservation Lands (NCL) system.   How the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) handles the mine proposal could test the purpose and durability of the NCL designation that we were told would protect our desert wildlands from industrial-scale destruction.

An aerial photo of Conglomerate Mesa looking west.  Sierra Nevada Range in the distance.

The BLM just received public comments on a draft environmental assessment for the Perdito exploratory drilling project.  If the company drills for samples and deems the area lucrative,  it could build miles of new roads, bring in heavy equipment to excavate a large strip mine, and use a toxic cyanide leaching process to extract gold.  That plan would drastically alter the rugged backcountry that hikers, campers and hunters access through a couple of primitive dirt roads that dead end in a wild, remote landscape.

Such destruction would seem to be inconsistent with law and policy that governs how these public lands are supposed to be managed. Congress in 2009 directed the BLM to identify areas of the California desert to be managed for "conservation purposes" under the newly-established NCL system.  The BLM followed through on this law in 2016 when it finalized the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which designated Conglomerate Mesa and many other areas of the California desert as part of the NCL system.

The BLM map below shows the location of the proposed exploratory drilling (known as the Perdito Exploration Project) and gold mine.  The yellow zones are part of the National Conservationa Lands system, and the green are Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs).



Opportunities for Mitigation are Questionable
The BLM placed a cap on the amount of disturbance allowed in various NCL lands in the California desert.  For Conglomerate Mesa, no more than 1% of land in the region can be disturbed or destroyed beyond existing, authorized facilities and roads.   The disturbance cap in the Conglomerate Mesa area has already been exceeded, which means that any company allowed to cause additional disturbance would have to spend significant sums of money to restore or protect lands at a 3:1 ratio elsewhere in the same area.  If SSR Mining ultimately digs a 640 acre pit here, for example, they would need to buy or restore 1,920 acres somewhere in the same region (the Basin and Range subarea, to be specific).   The BLM's logic is that by allowing some additional disturbance to occur, the required compensatory mitigation at a 3:1 ratio would bring the overall amount of disturbance down. 

Finding lands to restore or purchase and set aside for conservation may be difficult when we start talking about hundreds or thousands of acres.  First, the mining company would have to find lands that fall within a NCL designation in the Basin and Range subarea of the California desert, essentially extending to the Panamint and Owens Valleys.  According to the DRECP, if SSR Mining cannot find mitigation lands in that area, they cannot move forward with the project.  And the 640 acre gold mine example above was just a hypothetical to help illustrate the mitigation requirements.  SSR Mining probably would want a much bigger mine. The company's Marigold Mine in Nevada disturbed over 7,000 acres.  If SSR Mining dug a 7,000 acre mine in Conglomerate Mesa, it would need to restore or acquire 21,000 acres in the Panamint or Owens Valleys.  That simply is not feasible.  And if the mitigation is not feasible, then the project cannot be permitted, according to the DRECP.

A portion of SSR Mining's exploratory drilling will fall within the Conglomerate Mesa ACEC, a 1,730 acre swath of land that SSR Mining believes may hold a density of gold worth mining.  The company would also have to compensate for any disturbance in the ACEC at a 3:1 ratio.  The problem is that for disturbance that occurs within the ACEC, the compensatory mitigation must take place within the boundary of the Conglomerate Mesa ACEC, according to the DRECP.  Why the mining company even bothers to drill exploratory holes in the ACEC is unclear.  It is difficult to believe that any significant amount of lands can be acquired or restored within the relatively small Conglomerate Mesa ACEC to satisfy the mitigation requirement.  There are no private lands to purchase there, and the its relatively pristine condition means little opportunity exists for restoration.

The BLM's environmental assessment did not identify specific restoration or land conservation opportunities in the region that SSR Mining could pursue to satisfy requirements.  It may be feasible for the company to find enough land to compensate for its relatively low footprint, temporary drilling activities.  But destroying hundreds of acres for a strip mine operation probably would be a much different story. 

An image including in an SSR Mining investor presentation shows the areas where it plans to explore the potential for a gold mine.  A fully operational strip mine would probably involve significant disturbance beyond just the areas outlined in yellow.

Visual Resource Requirements A Major Hurdle?
The particular public lands around Conglomerate Mesa were also identified for their scenic value, meaning that the BLM is required to "retain the existing character of the landscape" and not allow development that could "attract the attention of a casual observer" (as a strip mine almost certainly would).

Although the BLM believes it can permit the exploratory drilling phase - involving helicopters carrying drilling equipment to specific spots, or carving limited dirt roads to bring in temporary drilling rigs - the question remains whether the BLM or SSR Mining believe that a full strip mine could be permitted in Conglomerate Mesa. Even a modest-sized strip mine would significantly contrast with the natural character and landforms that currently exist in the area.

A massive gold mine simply does not belong in Conglomerate Mesa.  This area is a part of the National Conservation Lands system for a reason.  The land's natural state, thriving ecosystem, and opportunities for outdoor recreation are of national significance.  If a company can come along and blast, dig, and cyanide-leach the land away for an industrial gold mine, then what is the point of the National Conservation Lands system? 

Comments

  1. Colorado's horrendous abandoned goldmine, the Gold King mine spill wasn't EPA's fault. They were inspecting a long term leak. They got stuck with the blame that should have gone to the owners of the mine. This should be enough reason to deny a gold mine in Conglomerat Mesa. The building and mining operation would be another spill just waiting to happen.
    https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/officials-downstream-from-colorado-mine-spill-demand-answers/

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