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Canadian company plans to reopen gold mine south of Las Vegas

Updated April 25, 2019 - 12:03 am

A Canadian company is moving ahead with plans to reopen a gold mine in the heart of California’s Castle Mountains National Monument, just across the state line from Searchlight.

The Bureau of Land Management is now accepting public comment on a revised operating plan for the open-pit Castle Mountain Mine on private land owned by Equinox Gold Corp.

The Vancouver-based company plans to dig out and process as much as 51 million tons of rock that was previously excavated at the site, only to be dumped back into one of the pits when the price of gold dropped.

Equinox officials did not respond to a request for comment, but a technical report issued by the company last year estimated the mine could produce 2.8 million ounces of gold and generate $865 million over 16 years of operation.

The 1,375-acre operation roughly 90 miles south of Las Vegas opened in 1990 and expanded in 1998 before shutting down three years later.

The site is now surrounded by a 21,000-acre national monument created by President Barack Obama in 2016 to preserve ancient rock art, an early 20th century ghost town, a rare Mojave Desert grassland and a largely untouched Joshua tree forest that extends into Nevada.

Some conservationists are worried about the impact the mine could have on the monument.

David Lamfrom, director of California desert programs for the National Parks Conservation Association, said it’s “honestly hard to know” what might happen if the mine starts back up. But the nonprofit advocacy group, which pushed hard for the federal designation, is concerned about potential air and chemical pollution, increased truck traffic on the monument’s dirt roads and groundwater pumping that could threaten Piute Spring, which feeds the only perennial stream flowing into nearby Mojave National Preserve.

“Our goal is not to obstruct legal gold mining,” Lamfrom said. “We’re really looking to the mine to be an incredibly respectful neighbor to Castle Mountains National Monument. We need them to be.”

BLM officials have determined that no additional environmental reviews are needed because the mine’s revised operating plan calls for a lower level of activity and disturbance than previous plans already approved by the agency.

The bureau will collect public input on its decision through May 20.

A working, open-pit mining operation within a National Park Service site is rare, but Obama’s declaration was specifically tailored to allow the Castle Mountain Mine to reopen someday.

Though most of the monument is managed by the park service, the area immediately surrounding the mine site was carved out and left under the jurisdiction of the BLM, which administers mining claims on public land. The main access route to the mine — an unpaved ranch road that connects to Nevada Route 164 just west of Searchlight — was also excluded from the monument.

Mining must resume by 2026

But the owner of the mine is on the clock.

Both the access road and the BLM land surrounding the mine are slated to be transferred to park service control if no mining activity occurs by 2026.

The monument is managed by officials at Mojave National Preserve, though not much has been done there so far.

Preserve superintendent Todd Suess said the plan right now is to maintain Castle Mountains as a remote, primitive area, with little more than a few interpretive signs and a hiking trail or two.

He said the park service has no official position when it comes to the mine, though his staff has been working with its owners since the monument was established.

Suess said he hopes that collaboration will continue.

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

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