Open Pit Mining: The Protest that Worked

In 2009, Vista Gold Corporation,  a Canadian-owned company that was headquartered in Denver Colorado, announced plans for an open pit gold mine in the watershed of the Sierra Laguna, above the town of Todos Santos, in Baja, California.  The water for Todos Santos and adjacent villages came fro a dam that was very close to the location of the the proposed mine.  There are no other water sources. and the risk of contamination by mining waste was high. The value of the mine was estimated at 1.2 million ounces of gold over a 9.3-year period.

“The proposed mine near Todos Santos was a preposterous idea: the mine would have needed to move a million pounds of rock to get a pound of gold,” said John McNerney, known to many in Jerome as the founder of  Jerome Instrument Corporation in 1979.

John knows a lot about gold mines. He spent many summers prospecting in Northern Nevada and that’s where he got his idea for designing a detector that could accurately measure mercury vapor. He knew just how nasty the consequences of open pit gold mining could be.

One of his biggest regrets is finding the Jerritt gold mining prospect near Elko, Nevada, which John described as a most beautiful canyon that began filling with mining waste as soon as the mine opened. The Jerritt mine was shut down after it contaminated the Owyhee River and other streams with atmospheric mercury used in the processing of gold. It could re-open when it installed better mercury emission control equipment. “By that time the damage was done,” said John.

After John McNerney sold his company in 1988, he and his wife Iris moved to Port Townsend, Washington where John built a most beautiful boat that took them on many voyages. A favorite was sailing the islands that were near La Paz, Baja, California.Eventually they moved to Todos Santos, in Baja California (a tourist town not unlike Jerome, AZ), where John built a home. He joined Niparaja, an organization which is devoted to marine conservation and the protection of many of the sensitive environmental coastal areas and islands that he grew to love while sailing. (niparaja.org)

When Vista Gold announced the potential for a new open pit mine above the town he lived in, John helped spearhead the grass roots movement against it.

Virtually as soon as announcements of a new mine were made and permits applied for, a new website, vistagoldno.com, was put up and. During the first year, the articles were about the terrible working conditions and environmental disasters that attached to open pit mines. The first year also coined its ‘rallying’ slogan : Agua Vale mas que Oro! (Water is Worth more than Gold!).

The first article that was put up on vistagoldno website was: “Water vs 3700 tons of arsenic.” This short, concise, article made clear that the biggest threat to water sources was arsenic contamination. The article put up some graphic photos of the health problems that workers had due to working with arsenic. “With every hurricane or heavy rain, this exposed arsenic will leach into the aquifers for generations.” (Arsenic is a major component of acid mine tailing in and around Jerome.)

Hands and feet contaminated with arsenic.
Hands and feet full of arsenic poisoning.
John’s said that putting up these types  articles was part of the process of educating the community that had very little real knowledge about the effects of big mining in the communities surrounding them. “The information is all over the internet, John said. “We just had to find the best and start putting them up.”
The website shows the interesting sequence of activities that culminated in the protest that shut down the mine. The organization of the protest is clear and could easily serve as a model for virtually any other mine protest.

As the protest grew, so did the promises of Vista Gold—jobs (400 to 600 workers during construction and 300 full-time employees for the project’s life) and proper work-safety practices. Vista Gold also promised to use “environmental sensitive, state-of-the-art mining technology and practices, and uphold the highest international standards.” The company promised to build a desalination plant to ensure long-term, fresh water. (This was probably a just-in-case they wrecked the water sources for Todos Santos and nearby villages.)

Vistagoldno kept the pressure up. They put up stories about damage to Mexican communities that had ongoing mining operations. They featured a story about a few American companies that were protesting ‘dirty gold’ operations in other parts of the world. They summarized and provided links to a series of articles in the New York Times about contamination that resulted from the operations of global mining companies.

“When the residents of Todos Santos began to realize, ‘Hey that’s our lives they’re going to take away’—the protest picked up the momentum of a snowball careening downhill” John said.

The protest began to draw in leaders and residents in the communities that would be affected.  It was beginning to be so effective that. They wrote letters of protest to the mine and to Mexican officials.

Within a year, Vista Gold decided to change the name of the project from Paredones Amarillos (literally “yellow walls)” to the “Concordia” project “because it believed “that this will better reflect the integration of the project with the environmental, social and economic priorities of the region. The name Concordia (translated as “agreement” or “oneness”) was selected after “a wide-ranging dialogue with local communities and other project stakeholders.” which you could translate into community leaders were beginning be increasingly concerned about the nature of mining dirty gold. According to Vista Gold, “The name change is part of a broad program intended to communicate Vista’s commitment to developing the Concordia gold project in a way that is consistent with contemporary standards for sustainable development, environmental stewardship, and the health and safety of the communities in which the Company operates.”

Don’t you just love public relations mining speak!

In 2011, more than 8500 people chanting “Agua Vale mas que Oro! “ at a protest rally near Los Cabos. It included the entire town of Todos Santos — the cops, the school kids, the teachers, firemen, business owners, carpenters and plumbers and many others in neighboring communities. See a video about this march: http://www.bajainsider.com/environment/goldminevideo.htm

Support against the gold mining project drew .

Support against the gold mining project drew .

The following day, director of SERMANAT (environmental agency of Mexico) announced they would not issue the required permits for this mine.

Protesting a large mining operation can be done with committed leaders, their ability to inspire volunteers, a long-range plan to attract a strong following, and a catchy rallying slogan.

“You could say that my life has come full circle,” John McNerney said. “I used to be involved in helping mining companies find new sources of gold. The world needs metals, but mined responsibly. No one needs any more gold.”

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