The Link Between Brexit And Nevada's Gold Industry

Jul 1, 2016

Overlooking Newmont's Gold Quarry pit outside Elko, Nevada on June 8, 2016. Despite most flat prices, miners continue to process about 40,000 tons of ore a day at this site.
Credit Julia Ritchey

Market uncertainty following Great Britain's decision to exit the European Union has buoyed gold prices, and that's actually good news for Nevada. The state’s gold producers account for more than 70 percent of the U.S. total. As we wrap up our look at mining this week, Reno Public Radio's Julia Ritchey takes us on a tour of one of Nevada's largest gold operations.

I'm standing on a platform overlooking Newmont's gold quarry pit in northeastern Nevada, just outside Elko, where 225,000 pounds of explosives just detonated about a mile away. A huge plume of dust drifts into the sky.

It's the largest surface mining operation in the state at more than 1,900 feet deep and 1.5 miles wide. Since it began operating in the early '80s, it's produced nearly 20 million ounces of gold.

"We have three main areas we’re mining around here at gold quarry; you saw probably the Gold Quarry South overloook," Mike McGlynn is the chief metallurgist at Newmont. "We're also mining heavily in the north area, about 15 miles north near Leeville, then Immigrant on the other side of Carlin.”

Mike McGlynn, chief metallurgist at Newmont, leads a tour of the control room in Mill 5, where high-grade ore is processed using chemical extraction.
Credit Julia Ritchey

McGlynn is now leading our tour group through Mill 5, a large building with orange light that smells a little like rotten eggs.

It's here that all the high-grade ore from the nearby quarry, where the blast just happened, is crushed up by large cylinders, then put into floating tanks where the gold is chemically extracted. It’s then melted into 100-pound semi-pure bars.

"Its' been pretty steady in the last five to 10 years that we're in that ballpark of [producing] 700 to 1,000 bars of gold per year," says McGlynn.

Those bars are shipped off to a refinery in Switzerland where they're melted into bricks of even higher purity and sold on the open market.

A graph of mineral production in Nevada since 1978. Gold production rose about 8 percent last year.
Credit Julia Ritchey, Nevada Division of Minerals

Gold is once again seeing renewed interest thanks to volatility following Britain's referendum to leave the EU. Gold prices have risen nearly 5 percent since the vote. Some analysts predict that the upcoming U.S. presidential election, and the anxiety it's causing, may keep prices up.

Rich Perry is with the state's Division of Minerals, whose agency tracks production numbers among Nevada's mineral commodities. He says last year was okay.

"We saw gold production increase in the state of about 8 percent, which actually was surprising, because it had declined for the previous three years," he says. 

It's still a far cry from gold's peak, at $1,900 an ounce five years ago, but most mining operations, including Newmont, have made do by focusing on efficiency.

"I think the best description of the gold industry for the last two to three years has been optimization of their existing operations," says Perry.

Some smaller mines have closed up shop and there have been layoffs, but things seem to be stabilizing.

Reno Forklifts uses small gold-wrapped chocolates to advertise its weight scales at the Elko Mining Expo on June 9, 2016. The mood was more upbeat this year than the previous few.
Credit Julia Ritchey

At the Elko Mining Expo last month, hundreds of vendors set up booths at the visitors and convention center, where the mood was decidedly more upbeat.

Tom Concialdi is a sales manager at Reno Forklift. He stacked tiny gold-wrapped Hershey's chocolates on a scale to represent gold bars at his booth. He says business is up.

"Last year has been pretty good, it was kind of flat with mining there for a while, but it seems like ... they're loosening the purse string a little and doing a lot better," he says.

Mining companies don't control prices, but they do control their costs. For small business owners like Concialdi, that means he'll see fewer purchases of new equipment and more repairs and service calls.

Still, at huge operations like Newmont, little changes in the day-to-day of mining. Nathan Bennett is the chief engineer at the gold quarry, overseeing surface and underground operations.

Newmont's Nathan Bennett says they've been able to maintain their production volume by focusing on efficiency and optimization.
Credit Julia Ritchey

"Mining projects are a long-term investment, so even when gold prices spikes, we did very little different," says Bennett. "Lowered the cut-off grades, but we still moved the same amount of tons. So even five years ago, we mined 200,000 tons a day."

Bennett says the quarry has at least a couple decades left. Beyond that, exploration continues around the pit, and Newmont projects that seven million ounces of gold remain hidden in the rock.

Check out a video of the June 8 blast at Newmont's Gold Quarry