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By Harkinson, Josh | Mother Jones, March/April 2009 | Go to article overview

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Harkinson, Josh, Mother Jones


WHY WON'T SENATE MAJORITY LEADER HARRY REID STOP THE $100 BILLION GIVEAWAY TO THE COUNTRY'S DIRTIEST INDUSTRY?

IN THE BACK OF GOLDIE's, a dive bar in Elko, Nevada, I was talking rocks with a miner with a steadily growing heap of beer bottles in front of him. He was about 50, with a sun-scorched face and a starched cowboy shirt, and refused to give his name. "With a high school degree you can make $70,000 a year here," he boasted, though he fretted that President Barack Obama "will probably screw us with taxes." He was a supervisor for Barrick Gold, a Canadian mining conglomerate with several big operations near Elko, including Betze-Post, a four-square-mile open pit that's the nation's most productive gold mine. Lighting a Camel and flagging a bartender, he ordered a shot of Jägermeister and another for the curvaceous stripper in his arms. "He's got money-and a good heart," she told me, before leaning in to nibble the miner's ear.

Elko is the wind-blasted heart of Nevada's mining country. The five surrounding counties produce all of the state's copper, almost a third of its silver, and nearly 90 percent of its gold. In 2007, mines in Nevada extracted nearly 190 tons of gold-three times the total yield in all other states. Only China, Australia, and South Africa dig up more. A billboard on the edge of town proclaims in a Victorian scrawl, "Discover the new economic gold rush."

Nevada's first gold rush peaked in the 1870s, a little more than a decade after Mark Twain visited a boomtown where "money was as plenty as dust." Today, pickax-wielding miners descending narrow shafts have been replaced by fleets of airconditioned excavators working massive open pits. Yet the frontier ethos remains carved into the state's popular mythology and the strike-it-rich ads of casino chains like the Nugget and Boomtown. Money from the mines still fuels whorehouses, corrupt speculators, and boozy bar fights. (Before night's end at Goldie's, one man grabbed another by the throat and pinned his head to the edge of the stool I'd been sitting on.)

Nevadans' stubborn attachment to the old ways is also evident in a relaxed attitude toward the environmental costs of an industry that, according to the EPA, releases more toxic waste than any other. "You can't mine in California, Arizona, Montana, or Washington," the gold miner told me. But in Nevada, he added with a twinkle in his eye, "We're in the wild, wild West."

The Silver State owes its holdout status in part to Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who went from a hardscrabble childhood in a gold town to becoming one of the mining industry's most reliable allies in Congress. Reid has been instrumental in blocking efforts to reform the archaic General Mining Law of 1872, a legal blank check that's allowed miners to take an estimated $408 billion worth of gold and other hard rock minerals from public lands without paying a single cent in federal royalties-ever. When those mines are tapped out or go bust-as they inescapably do-taxpayers are often stuck with the cleanup bill, estimated at more than $30 billion nationwide. But Reid, who owns a handful of defunct gold mines and whose sons and son-in-law have ties to mining companies, has vigorously fought off efforts to make the industry pay its way.

This makes for good politics back home. Even in Elko County, where Barack Obama got just 28 percent of the vote despite making three campaign stops here (what a former Reid staffer considers "an absurd number of times to go to Elko") and declaring himself an "honorary Elkonian," Reid is forgiven for being a Democrat. "He has been our biggest proponent," said the miner at Goldie's.

Yet Reid's loyalty to mining has increasingly put him at odds with other Democrats, who have sought to end more than a century of giveaways to the nation's dirtiest industry. It's also been a curious contrast with his own record as an environmentalist and a champion of Nevada's growing urban population. …

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