Santa Fe Gold claims to be "Setting A New Standard," but what kind of standard could they be referring to?
By Marc Choyt
A proposed gold mine threatens a pristine region of New Mexico, while using Orwellian PR to tout its commitment to “sustainability.”
In June, Santa Fe Gold announced plans to open a gold mine thirty miles south of Santa Fe in the Ortiz Mountains, sending out thousands of glossy brochures to citizens with the headline: “Continuing a Legacy, Setting A New Standard For Mining.” The document opens to a black and white photo of long bearded, old time prospectors, romancing the mining legacy inspiring their two billion dollar project.
The proposed mine borders the Santa Fe Botanical Reserve, a bioregion with 285 vertebrate species including seven species of bats, bull snake, whiptails, coach whip, cougar, deer and fox. Among the 80 types of birds, you can find rock wren, greater roadrunner, scrub jay and vesper sparrow.
The mine will create a crater over a thousand feet deep, tailings five stories high and a gash across the viewscape nearly a mile wide. Yet, we are told in the brochure that this operation will be done by people who value the ecology of the bioregion.
“From the CEO to shovel operator,” the brochure reads, “the company believes the areas unspoiled air, clean water and natural beauty are more valuable than any mineral wealth.”
In a places where being “from here” means four hundred years of roots, Santa Fe Gold pitches itself as a local firm, despite the fact that they are close to completing a merger with International Goldfields Ltd, an Australian company with mines in Brazil, Australia and West Africa. With multinational mining giants, the real mineral wealth is always exported from local economies to shareholders far, far away from the destructive extractive activity.
Mining Legacy Reframed
Santa Fe Gold’s marketing reframes the history of mining by destroying a mountain where stories live in rocks, trees and loping coyotes. The area is actively used by Pueblo people, as it has been for a thousand years. Numerous archaeological sites have been documented, including petroglyphs, and field houses from the San Cristobal people.
These Native People have their own version of mining’s “legacy.” A Pueblo elder told me how his great grandmother died enslaved in a mine around the Ortiz. In Californian, where a hundred thousand Native people were exterminated by miners, heads of children were cut off and put on posts around mining camps. To those who hold these stories, these events happened a few minutes ago. Blood and hair scraped from punctured skulls are the human tailings that mark the earth.
Around 180 old mines are scattered around the Ortiz, and the mercury contamination resulting from these old mines has not been documented. The legacy of gold that built California is nineteen million pounds of mercury that flows from old mines, contaminating the watersheds that supply Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Water is life in New Mexico. Santa Fe Gold’s brochure shows a photo of a drip on a plant to illustrate their water usage. In fact, the mine would need over 200 acre-feet a year while we are in the midst of the worst drought in 100 years. The mine would use at least seventy million gallons a year. The well in the bordering village of Madrid, which flows from the Ortiz, is dropping 15 feet a year and may have less than 10 years of production left. The community consensus is that poor water quality and lack of water is due to past mining operations.
A Mining Sacrifice Zone?
Though Santa Fe Gold proposes to extract gold without chemicals, there are also plans to extract 2.7 million pounds of copper from the ore. Governor Martinez’s Administration has rewritten the copper rules to exempt some groundwater from the standards established by the New Mexico Water Quality Act.
Waste rock piles containing sulfuric acid, arsenic and mercury from any new copper mining could, under the new proposal, legally leach into groundwater. The shutdown Cunningham mine, not far from the proposed Ortiz mine and which is still in remediation, has a legacy of acid drainage.
The proposed Ortiz mine is located on the Turquoise Trail, one of New Mexico’s few National Scenic Byways that runs through an area heavily dependent upon tourism yet rich in mineral deposits. Approval could set a dangerous precedent, transforming this exquisite high desert bioregion into a mining sacrifice zone, completely contrary to Santa Fe County’s Sustainable Growth Management Plan.
A New Standard?
Santa Fe Gold claims to be “Setting A New Standard,” but what kind of standard could they be referring to?
As a Santa Fe jeweler and activist, I have supported and even participated as a stakeholder in discussions concerning international mining and corporate social responsibility. Fair Trade gold, which creates market incentives through premiums to responsible small scale gold miners, is another excellent model for ethical gold mining generating wealth for producer communities.
For larger operations, the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA, is a powerful example of diverse groups trying to find the radical center. Neither Santa Fe Gold nor International Goldfields is part of the initiative.
The most exciting project I’ve been involved with is in California, supported by the Sierra Fund. There, a mining company, Native People and ethical jewelers are collaborating to heal mining’s legacy by mining old tailings, removing mercury and restoring the Yuba River’s riparian zone with the goal of bringing salmon back.
Yet perhaps Santa Fe Gold claim around standards is valid. I have never seen a mining company’s marketing document that so strongly undermines their credibility with such culturally insensitive and Orwellian language. In this regard, Santa Fe Gold's (soon to be International Gold Field's) claim to be “Setting A New Standard” may be entirely correct.
Photo Credits: Orland Diaz and Marc Choyt