However, Reid seems to have thought Bingaman's reforms would go too far. Ultimately, spiking oil prices pushed mining reform off the Energy Committee's agenda, but committee spokesman Bill Wicker says that Reid played a role in delaying the bill. "He certainly did, as you would expect him to," he says. "I think it would have been a bigger story if the senator from Nevada had no role in talks on mining law." Reid's office denies that the majority leader stalled the bill and maintains that his involvement was aimed at avoiding a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
"I don't think anyone is to blame," says a Reid staffer, who expects the mining bill to resurface in this session. "This is an issue where there have been many, many attempts over the past 100 years to amend it, and it's just damn hard." He would not comment on which provisions of the bill Reid supported or disagreed with, except to say that he opposes imposing any sort of fees on existing mines on public lands. The senator thinks such mines should remain exempt from any new royalty scheme, says spokesman Jon Summers. "You've got to think twice before you change the rules in the middle of the game."
to see how changing the rules might alter the face of Western mining, I traveled to central Nevada's Cortez Mountains, a rugged chain where Barrick Gold plans to excavate 6,750 acres of public land thought to contain 250 tons of gold. The delay of mining reform has been an unquestionable boon to the project, known as the Cortez Hills mine. If the House bill had become law, the site's known reserves would generate as much as $450 million in royalties.
"They say mining brings jobs," said Carrie Dann, a wrinkled Western Shoshone elder who met me on a windy October afternoon by her trailer in Crescent Valley, a dusty town near the mine. "When you tear the whole mountain down, that's one hell of a damn job." Dann drove with me to point out the project site, located on Bureau of Land Management (blm) property. As the paved road gave way to grooved clay, we passed a wall of rocks rising some 30 stories from the valley floor. High above us, trucks appeared at the edge to dump loads of rock from Barrick's existing 900-foot pit, and sprinklers sprayed piles of ore with a cyanide solution to leach out the gold.
We climbed through piñon and juniper and stopped at a clearing beneath a string of quartzite steeples known as the White Cliffs. The Shoshone buried their dead on the mountain, and this spot had been a religious gathering place for generations, Dann explained. But such considerations are meaningless under the 1872 law, which makes it nearly impossible to block a mining claim. The Clinton administration was unable to stop a proposed gold mine just outside Yellowstone whose waste might have flowed into the national park—until it gave the owners another site worth $65 million.
The 2007 mining reform bill that got stuck in the Senate would have allowed local and state governments and American Indian tribes to petition the federal government to protect areas like the White Cliffs. Still, according to Glenn Miller, a professor of natural resources and environmental science at the University of Nevada-Reno, even under a new mining law, "it's going to be tough to stop" big mines like Cortez Hills. Dann considered the blue surveying ribbons on the surrounding trees. "It's going to be sad to see pits in here," she said. (A month later, the blm approved the mine.)
Barrick claims the new mine will be state of the art. The company says it will follow strict state rules to prevent cyanide leaks and will emit hardly any mercury. (Metal mines emit nine times more mercury than all other industries combined; eight of the United States' ten largest emitters of mercury are gold mines.) However, mines have rarely delivered on such promises, observes Miller. "Every one of them has unintended environmental problems."
Those problems often become the responsibility of the federal government when mines are tapped out or mining companies succumb to the volatile minerals market. There are some 500,000 abandoned mines across the country, and cleaning them up will cost an estimated $32 to $72 billion.
After visiting the White Cliffs, I drove to see a contaminated copper mine just outside the quaint farm town of Yerington, in western Nevada. There, Tom Dunkelman, an epa supervisor, showed me a waste pond whose polyethylene liner had cracked, leaking toxic metals into the ground and possibly the groundwater that supplies 150 families, who have stopped drinking from their taps. The company that installed the ponds, Arimetco, went bankrupt in 1997, leaving taxpayers to foot part of an environmental bill that could reach $50 million. (Meanwhile, Arimetco's former ceo now runs International Silver, Inc., which is seeking to mine 1,300 acres of federal land in California's Mojave Desert.)
"There cannot be another Yerington in Nevada," says Coyner, the administrator of the state Division of Minerals. In 1990, the state began requiring all mines to post bonds to guarantee cleanup. The 2007 mining reform bill would have imposed even stricter national bonding requirements. Yet as it stands, says Patricia Mulroy, the general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, mining poses a risk not just to rural outposts like Yerington, but also to the burgeoning metropolis of Las Vegas. Its water supply could be at risk of contamination from mining on any of the more than 1,200 uranium claims staked along the Colorado River. Federal mining rules need to change, she says, not to punish miners, but to protect people who live near mines. "To begin to look at the law and ask, 'How does it function in a Western setting with far more cities, with much greater stress on water supplies?' I think, is highly appropriate."
Reid doesn't seem to share her sense of urgency. When the House Committee on Natural Resources tried to revoke the uranium claims last year, Reid stood by as the Bush administration blocked the move.
back in searchlight, the prospectors, rock gatherers, and goldbugs still eagerly await the next boom. Inside the Nugget casino, the bartender told me she moonlighted as an assayer. Bob Shawn, a round man with a ponytail and walrus mustache, overheard us. "There's 28 different kinds of ore here," he said, pulling out a rock he'd dug up. "If you go under the light, you can see the gold in it. Just lick it!" Shawn's weekend prospecting had yet to make him rich, but, he mused, "Somewhere around here, there has got to be a nice vein of gold."
Behind the cash register of the Rebel Oil convenience store, I found Barnes Miller, the town's preeminent mineralogist. On a brown paper bag used to sheathe beers, he drew pictures of gold formations—lenticular, parallel—that he thought Searchlight's early miners might have missed. "I found—well, I can't get into that," he began, between mouthfuls of sunflower seeds. "The potential for the entire district is really good. There is just so much left over. It's just been forgotten."
Until the next gold rush, Searchlight struggles to reinvent itself. A whorehouse is now a senior center. Near the lot where Reid's childhood home once stood, a billboard advertises a casino. A subdivision for snowbirds that recently went up along Harry Reid Road sits largely vacant. It's hard not to wonder what might have happened if more than a century of mining royalties had helped fund parks and sidewalks.
Reid still entertains the notion that his hometown—and perhaps his entire state—might defy the odds and strike it rich once again. "A mining town is like the ocean," he wrote in Searchlight: The Camp That Didn't Fail. "It has tides that sweep in and tides that go out, the ebb and flow of nature. Those in the ebb are sometimes unable to see the flow. But in mining it is always there." (Asked if Reid might someday reopen his mines, a spokesman says, "To Senator Reid's knowledge, there's no valuable mineral deposit on any of the land that he owns.")
Yet Nevada's gold is running out; its known reserves are expected to last only 20 more years. After years of being called the state's second-biggest business (after gambling), the mining industry, perhaps assuming a lower profile, now insists it's the sixteenth. But that doesn't change the fact that the difficult, dirty business of mining remains dominated not by plucky gold panners, but by behemoths like Barrick.
"Small-time mining is over, in my opinion," said Tony Werly, owner of the shuttered Techatticup mine, where Reid's father worked as a watchman in his twilight years. Werly makes his money leading tours of the mine and renting the site to Hollywood directors. (In the 2001 stinker 3000 Miles to Graceland, Kevin Costner flicks a cigarette into a puddle of gas by the mine, blowing up an airplane.)
Jane Overy, who moved to Searchlight in 1980, operated one of the last gold mines in the area, only to shut it down after two years. She believes mining in Searchlight is a distant dream. "This is not nugget country," she explained.
Now the town's historian, Overy keeps a photo of Reid on the wall of her small community museum. Still, she doesn't see eye to eye with the senator on the question of who profits from mining public lands. "This probably is not going to sit well with Harry, but I was surprised coming here that we didn't have to pay for any minerals from the ground. As a citizen, that really bothered me," Overy said. "The gold belongs to the people."