October 12, 2015

Infrastructure Time: Literal American Gold Mine

Note: Friends, this email is mostly a draft of an article that I wrote for a publication, so if you see it someplace else later, this is why.

"Everything here is built to scale," I'm told, standing before a haul truck approximately the size of a two-story house. The person telling me this drives one of these haul trucks at a Newmont gold mine outside of Elko, NV. He is telling me why driving the Caterpillar 793D is not unlike driving a Toyota Corolla. The 100-foot wide roads, the berms, the equipment and operations of the mine are built around these massive trucks, which means it's not actually that scary to drive one.

At this mine, which sits on a geological site called the Carlin Trend, there's on average 4-5 ounces of actual gold within a single haul truck's 250 tons of earth. In current prices, that roughly means there's about $5,275 to be made from a haul, which is about 0.17% of the sticker price of the haul truck itself, or about 11% of just one of the truck's 12-foot tall, $45,000 tires. After making those calculations, I am not sure what scale the haul truck driver meant when he described mining operations as "built to scale."

As far as commodities go, gold seems like one at a pretty far remove from my day-to-day life, encountered only in trace amounts--the roughly 0.034 ounces of it in my phone, maybe a 90-second segment on public radio about gold's fluctuating price and What That Means For The Economy. Gold mining, I had incorrectly assumed, now only happened Somewhere Else, in places where "mineral" was always prefaced with "conflict". Certainly not in the United States, where economic value is presumed to be more abstraction than anything else.

But, as noted in a United States Geological Survey report, the United States was the fourth largest gold producer in the world last year. Newmont Mining is one of the largest gold producing companies in the world, and the majority of their North America operations are in Nevada, which is where over 75% of the United States' gold production happens. Newmont offers tours at three of its open-pit mine sites, and the idea of touring an actual, operational gold mine was too novel to pass up. Growing up in California, gold mining field trips for me generally meant men in old-timey outfits and tin pans, not haul trucks the size of houses or 2000-foot deep pits created to extract microscopic amounts of ore.

The tour of the Carlin mine is scheduled on the same day I have to drive from Wendover to San Francisco, so after I finish packing up for the day I drive the two hours to Elko to meet the tour group at the parking lot of the Northeastern Nevada Museum. It's the last tour of the season, which means the tour group consists of myself and a retired man from Reno on vacation in the area. Typically they have enough attendees to justify a charter bus, but today we ride to the mine site in a company SUV. Corporate tours generally exist for corporations, not tourists, so I'm not that surprised when our tour guide cheerfully reminds us that, per the waiver signed earlier, our photos are for "personal use only." So I can't technically publish photos of the Chukar Quarry, the open pit we visit, although I think an email probably constitutes "personal use." (If you want to see some gold mine photos, I guess let me know and I'll send a separate email?)

The photos probably don't convey the scale and the gravity of the pit very well, and comparisons may not be adequate either. It looks like an inverted Aztec pyramid boring into the earth. It looks like the ruins of a lost civilization, recently unearthed by intrepid archaeologists. It looks like a setting of a Brian Aldiss novel. It looks like a dreaded future on a distant planet.

In satellite images, the pit is still impressive, but it's also in the Nevada desert, a place which tends to daunt and swallow up even the most massive of human endeavors. In the desert everything is built to scale, though not necessarily to last, at least not in terms of geologic time.

Newmont began operations at the Carlin Trend in 1965, and since then the site has been one of the most productive U.S. gold mines and a pioneer in open-pit mining and cyanide heap leaching, a now-common and relatively cheap method of extracting gold. In this process, a pile of rocks extracted from the ground are laid out on an open-air heap and sprayed with a diluted cyanide solution, which leaches gold ore out of the rocks. At Carlin, the gold is then refined out of that cyanide solution into 93% pure gold bars, which are sold to Brinks and sent to a company in Switzerland for further refining into 99.9% pure gold bars. Those 99.9% pure gold bars then enter the wholesale market for gold, at which point they enter into into entirely separate supply chains for things like jewelry and electronics. The open pit in Nevada that I technically can't publish photos of is just one of many ground zeros for a much longer, much more byzantine supply chain, which is why I don't and probably can't really know for sure precisely what conflict-ridden country the 0.034 ounces of gold in my phone comes from, and why it's such a difficult industry and supply chain to regulate.

Despite being part of a pretty opaque supply chain network, open pit mines are themselves pretty heavily regulated and surveilled. As we look out onto the future ancient ruined city of the open pit, our tour guide explains that a network of prisms and sensors monitor the pit at all times, helping the company predict and prevent landslides. The entire mining operation is as delicately monitored as the earth they mine. The haul trucks are tracked by management and directed to different extraction sites via software. The refinery site where gold bars are actually poured stands behind a maze of barbed wire, key cards, and surveillance cameras (the inside of the refinery is not on the tour). Employees can't take anything offsite, including "waste rock" materials that would just be used for building berms (technically, this just means anything from the earth that isn't gold, so other minerals in the earth like silver and copper are forms of waste rock). Refinery workers have to shower before and after their workday, though this is more likely due to chemical exposure risks than fear of theft.

Geologists sampling extractions from the mine use that to caclulate something called "life of mine", which is roughly how much longer the mine's expected to be productive. At Chukar, that's currently estimated to around 2032, although advances in mining technology and extraction methods seems to keep extending that date. In the 1960s, many assumed the Carlin site as a whole would be active for maybe a decade, tops--a comment frequently noted in a 50-year anniversary publication created by Newmont and the Elko Daily Free Press.

The extension of mine life, the energy and overhead costs and risk that goes into pulling just a little more ore out of the earth, is another example of how everything in mining is built to scale. At a local scale, it keeps a major employer and economic driver in operation. Newmont employs around 5,100 staff and contractors in the state of Nevada, and as of 2011 gold mining as a whole accounted for 6% of Nevada's GDP. Local impact also extends pretty far beyond the borders of Elko County--workers will commute from as far as Boise, since the work schedule for many mine employees is usually five days on, five days off.

At the scale of a global economy, the corporate office at the Carlin mine has six clocks in the lobby displaying time in different Newmont mining regions--Nevada, Colorado, Ghana, Indonesia, Perth, and Yanacocha, Peru. Everything is built to scale. Mining's profit margins are astonishingly narrow, as those 4-5 ounces per 250 tons might have suggested. Making holes in the earth that are visible from space is pretty expensive, and extracting as much value from that process adds even more expense, and environmental consequences, and (sometimes, but not always successful) attempts at regulation.

This is perhaps a familiar tendency of anthropocene economics, to scorch the earth while scavenging for scraps of value, something to maintain a way of life we maybe shouldn't have ever had in the first place for just a few decades longer. Our tour guide tells us that when the Chukar Quarry stops being productive, the company will perform "land reclamation"--in this case, turning the pit into a reservoir over a many decades-long process. It's hard to imagine the open pit filled with water, harder still to imagine a civilization that will be able to use it.

When we return to the Northeastern Nevada Museum after the tour, my phone with its 0.034 ounces of gold tells me that I have 526 miles of driving ahead of me. I'll cross through lonely northern Nevada, where all the gas stations have slot machines, into California, where the legacy of gold mining has been superseded by data mining, a commodity fiction of similarly opaque supply chains and intensive scrutiny, surveillance, and growing desperation. I drive for 9 hours and I do not look back.

I'll be in Point Arena, CA for the next few days working on stuff for the Network Geography project with Surya and Disk Cactus. Starting the drive back to New York on Saturday. I may not do as many dispatches over the drive part because at the moment, I'm doing this drive back to New York alone (which, if you are not busy next week and feel like going on a road trip, please let me know), but I promise exciting stories are forthcoming.

Thank you for reading. Be well, and keep in touch.