Volume 7, Number 1, 1997

There's Still Gold in Them Hills!

The Toiyabe mountain range in central Nevada is nearly 2,500 miles from the Palisades, N.Y., hometown of Gary Hurban, AS '88, but the distance in lifestyle is immeasurable.

Hurban grew up in the heavily populated Northeast, with the international mecca of New York City only 20 minutes away. Now, as a geologist in the gold-mining industry, he spends days at a time alone in the mountains, camping out in his truck, with only deer and an occasional mountain goat or wild mustang passing by.

The vegetation is sparse-sagebrush and thinly scattered pine trees. Overhead, turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks search for prey. Mountain ranges up to 10 miles wide can tower 10,000 feet up. "You don't hear anything but nothing," Hurban says, "and that's a great part of the job. It's actually quite pretty, especially at sunset. There are mountain ranges wherever you look."

From Hurban's current site, he has to travel 70 miles in any direction to get to the nearest town, and even those towns have a population of a couple thousand people at most. It's typical in Nevada to pass through several mountain ranges before reaching the next town.

"Out here, there are so few towns that we give directions according to what mountain range or valley we're working in," Hurban says. "I travel 50 miles of dirt road off the main road to get to my work site. I was talking recently to a nearby rancher who complained, 'It's getting too crowded out here. Used to be I'd see 12 cars a summer. Now, I sometimes see 12 cars in one week.'"

Hurban has been working in the gold-mining industry since graduating from Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., in 1991 with a master's degree in geology. After working for several mining companies in Washington and Nevada, he struck out on his own two years ago so he could concentrate on the exploration stage of mining, which he prefers. He moves from mine to mine and country to country with the seasons.

"When I was studying geology in school, the most exciting part was the field work, actually going out and looking at the rocks," he explains. "Working in the gold-mining industry encompasses the whole field of geology because when I'm exploring for ore deposits, I need to apply all of my background knowledge."

Mining has come a long way in the past 150 years. The scruffy, sun-baked loners panning for gold in California streams, whom we know from movies, have given way to computer modeling, large, powerful drills and innovations that have made ever-smaller particles of gold retrievable. "Invisible gold," the miners call it. Huge quantities of rock must be moved and processed to retrieve gold so diffuse. There may be only .05 ounces of gold per ton of rock, so mines must process 20 tons to find just one ounce of gold. (Twenty tons would occupy a space comparable in size to a large walk-in closet.)

Several relatively new ways of processing ore have revolutionized the mining industry. For example, the "heap leach operation" drips a cyanide solution over a large pile of rock sitting on impermeable pads, allowing miners to extract fine gold particles. The gold attaches to the cyanide and separates from the waste. In other cases, biotechnology is used. Bacteria are leached through the ore to separate the gold from the other minerals.

Summer-the prime season for exploration in the United States-will usually find Hurban in Nevada, the gold-mining capital of the U.S. In 1996, more than 7 million ounces of gold were mined in Nevada-66.5 percent of the nation's gold and 10 percent of the world's total output.

Central and South America also have active gold-mining industries, so when it's winter and
off-season here, Hurban travels south to work. "After being in the industry for six years, I have contacts all over the world," he says. "And, speaking Spanish is a big plus." Hurban studied
the language in school, but it was while working
at a site in Guerrero, Mexico, last year that he really learned Spanish.

At each of the three stages of mining- exploration, development and actual mining-the geologist is the resident expert, first determining where to search for gold and later identifying when the precious metal has been found. It's not always obvious, so during the mining stage, a geologist must decide what is waste, ensuring that nothing valuable is tossed aside.

On a typical day of exploration, Hurban hikes an area from 8 a.m. to sundown, making detailed notes of rock types and telltale minerals and sampling the soil and rocks for the presence of gold. He also uses geophysical data to identify areas where the density, conductivity or magnetism of the rock indicate potential ore deposits. After the field work is done, it's back to the office to create maps and write reports. The crucial exploration stage can take anywhere from several months to several years to complete.

Next, during the development stage, large drills are brought in to drill holes 1,000 feet deep to test the rock. Costs per drill hole run into the tens of thousands of dollars, so careful planning is necessary before a drill ever touches the soil.

Even if gold is found, it's not always economically beneficial to mine it. Feasibility studies and detailed computer modeling are conducted first to determine if the cost of extracting the gold outweighs its value, which has hovered in the range of $350 to $400 per ounce for the past 10 years.

The final stage, the actual mining, is when the hard labor begins. The number of workers on site suddenly explodes. Up to 250 people are typical, though the very large mining companies might have 2,000 people working at a site at one time. Open-pit mining, which Hurban has always worked in, begins with pre-stripping up to 500 feet of soil and rock above an ore deposit. Then, explosives are used to pulverize the rock, making it possible to separate the ore from the waste.

Although Hurban enjoys the work he does, he concedes that the solitary, exhausting lifestyle can be difficult. Typical assignments abroad are three to six months long. During that time, Hurban might work every day for four to six weeks and then get a couple weeks off.

"But," he adds, "the work is exciting and there's always something to learn. You kind of get addicted to the industry once you start, and it's hard to leave." That's a sentiment the old-time gold miners certainly shared.

-Theresa Gawlas Medoff, AS '94M