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Charity begins (and ends) at home with Nevada mining industry

Never let it be said that Nevada’s enormously profitable gold mines fail to show their charitable side. Far from it, friends.

Sure, the mines extract billions of dollars in gold each year from massive open-pit operations in the north. The Nevada Mining Association notes with suspender-snapping pride that the state ranks among the world’s largest gold producers, and in 2009 unearthed 79 percent of all the gold found in the United States. That’s about 5.6 million troy ounces at a time of unprecedented high prices.

With what is, by its own calculations, an estimated 75 million ounces of gold in the ground under patented claim, as long as prices remain high, its future is so bright it blazes.

But just because it nets billions from an open-pit heap leaching process that nit-picking environmentalist types claim can harm the land irreparably, don’t think for a minute Big Gold doesn’t have a warm place in its Fort Knox vault of a heart for Nevada. And don’t fret that because Nevada’s major gold mining companies are headquartered out of state and out of the country their CEOs don’t feel our pain during this recession. Nevada Mining Association President Tim Crowley assures me just the opposite is true.

To prove his point, Crowley said Monday that in 2009 Nevada’s gold giants gave — now hold onto your hard hats — $4.5 million to charities across this great state of ours.

You heard right: $4.5 million.

That’s in addition to employing workers and paying taxes, whose low rates are set in constitutional stone.

Although Crowley admitted he didn’t have hard statistics to back him up, he said, “We think about $3 million of it went to the mining communities.”

In case you’re stumped, those communities have names like Eureka, Elko and Ely. Big country, small population.

By Crowley’s educated estimate, that left about $1.5 million in philanthropic largesse flowing from multibillion-dollar, multi-national corporations to Nevada charities in 2009. The industry must be very proud. Crowley was enthused enough to mention it during a Review-Journal editorial board meeting, during which he said part of the mining industry’s problem is the perception it doesn’t do much for Nevada outside the gold fields.

In addition, Crowley said mining has embraced a $2 fee for every claim, which annually generates $400,000 a year to benefit UNR’s mining college, the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering.

If that $1.5 million number, or even the $4.5 million figure, sounds like a lot to you, it’s because you don’t understand what actual charitable giving looks like.

Take Elaine Wynn, for example. She has plenty of money since divorcing resort exec Steve Wynn, but she’s worth a fraction of the bottom line at Barrick and Newmont.

Still, in 2010 she gave $5 million to the Smith Center for the Performing Arts and another $1 million to the Three Square food bank.

To recap: Elaine Wynn, $6 million. Nevada mining, $1.5 million.

Then there’s the Engelstad Family Foundation. In the past six years, it has given more than $80 million to Southern Nevada charities great and small. That includes $35 million to the Nevada Cancer Institute, $8.2 million to the College of Southern Nevada’s cardio-respiratory nursing program, and more than $1 million for the Miracle League baseball field for disabled kids.

That’s right. The Engelstad Foundation gave almost as much for a ballfield as Big Gold spent outside its company towns.

Mining has rarely been a truly charitable player in modern Nevada. Its foreign operators have paid far more to lobbyists, governors and legislators to make sure that, robber baron image or not, the laws of the land continue to tilt in their favor.

Industry mouthpiece Crowley has his work cut out for him if he’s going to improve mining’s image in the Las Vegas Valley.

You see, $1.5 million doesn’t buy what it used to.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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