Mesquite Mine Keeps California Gold Mining Tradition Going
Domestic mine article by Harold Hough
Although California owes its existence to gold, you could never tell it from the way they treat mines. Even though gold is nearing $2,000 an ounce and promises new jobs in a state with high unemployment, the government, with the assistance of radical environmentalists make it hard to mine for gold – even for the weekend gold mining hobbyists.
New Gold’s Mesquite Mine, however, has managed to keep operating despite radical environmentalists thanks to a combination of environmental awareness and a low profile, even though it is a major gold producer.
The Mesquite Mine began operations just 25 years ago, although the district has attracted gold miners for hundreds of years. The Spanish Conquistadors searched for gold in the area and the Forty-Niners, who were too late for the good claims in California Gold Country, worked the area. It continued to attract the interest of prospectors like Dick and Anna Singer who moved to the area in 1957 and started prospecting the area. Their geological work and claims were the basis of the Mesquite Mine which was opened up in 1986 by the Gold Fields Mining Company. Today, it is the crown jewel for the New Gold Company and produced 165,000 ounces of gold in 2010.
The brutal conditions of the Mojave Desert are the biggest challenges to the mine. The mine is located 52 miles northwest of Yuma, AZ in a hot, dry desert where temperatures average over 100 degrees most of the summer. As a result, the ecosystem is fragile and often requires decades to recuperate from damage.
From the first, the Mesquite Mine was environmentally conscious. One example was their Desert Tortoise program that helped the endangered tortoise. In the 1980s, biologists discovered severe outbreaks of a tortoise respiratory disease that they didn’t understand or could control.
Before the government tackled the problem, the Mesquite Mine had begun its tortoise protection program. They brought in biologists who carried out a tortoise population survey. In addition to changing operating rules to make the mine more “tortoise friendly,” they bought 1,000 acres of desert that were a higher quality tortoise habitat to make up for the lower quality habitat that would be used in the mine.
Since the mine processes its gold ore with heap leaching technology, cyanide control has been an important environmental issue both for the mine and local environmentalists. New Gold recently became a signatory to the International Cyanide Management Code. Through a strict cyanide control program, the mine was able to reduce cyanide related wildlife deaths from 5 in 2009 to zero in 2010.
Water use is also a major issue at the mine, both as a major ingredient in the heap leaching process and dust control. Although the mine increased its use of dust control chemicals to reduce water demand, one solution was to change the storm water diversion around the Rainbow Pit to reduce wind blown dust.
Water demand should also drop as the heap leaching pads used at the mine today become less important in the future. The mine is producing more sulfide ore, which is not amenable to heap leaching (sulfide ore recovery rates are only 35% right now). New Gold is currently involved in an exploratory drilling program to discover the extent of the sulfide reserves. They are also acquiring ore samples to test several processing methods. Mining engineers are seriously looking at using a crushing/grinding/gravity separation process to produce a concentrate that can be processed elsewhere.
Depending on how they solve that problem, Mesquite is said to have another 12 years’ worth of gold mining in its future, at the current rate of production. At the near record gold prices of today, that promises to keep pumping money into the local economy while employing over 250 people in this remote corner of California.
Of course many environmental groups aren’t happy that the mine will continue operations. But, they may be more satisfied with the long term future of the property. Instead of developing other mineral resources at the Mesquite Mine site, New Gold says it intends to take advantage of the intense sun and high winds of the region. The company plans to stay at this location and develop solar and wind energy.