I'm working with a company that is contracting on a large, well established, open pit mine site right now. The mine has been in operation for several decades and have excavated themselves a fairly large hole. All waste rock is stacked up in piles hundreds of feet high all around the pit. That's where we come in.
The mine, like all other mineral mines in the area, is looking to expand their operations into areas with less mineral volume per ton. The price of gold is high enough to allow a profitable extraction in these less dense areas. As a result, archaeology in the area is booming. We are surveying and inventorying everything around the current mining operations and in some cases survey in new areas is taking place.
At the mine we are currently working for, the new areas are being used partially for expansion of the mountainous waste rock piles and for some exploratory drilling. This drilling is done on small pads that are cleared and leveled by bulldozers. That brings me to what happened at the end of our session on Tuesday of this week.
We were having somewhat of a lazy day driving and mapping roads within the project area. If you have ever been to a western desert state then you understand the network of two-track roads that exists out here. If you haven't, imagine a circuit board from the 80s with all of the exposed circuit pathways and you'll start to get the idea. For those who don't know, modern circuit boards, as opposed to boards from the 80s, are micro-miniature marvels of engineering. The boards are multi-layer and you often can't even see most of what's going on. They are quite fascinating. I think I went astray somewhere. Oh right...desert roads.
Anyway, we were driving all of the roads within the project area so we could get them in the GPS. Some would need to be recorded as historic sites in their own right while others are just access roads for sites and areas. Near the end of the day (about 1130 since we still had the 4.5 hour drive back to Reno) we had traveled over to an area that we surveyed in the previous session. Actually, we were right next to a site we designated number 1, so, the first site we recorded on this project. There was a bladed pad centered at the intersection of two historic two-track roads and at the edge of site number 1. The boundary for site 1 was extended to encompass a possibly historic mound of dirt near one of the roads. This is the portion that was destroyed by the blading of the pad. The rest of the site, an historic debris scatter with prospect pits and a collapsed adit, was left intact. However, we usually leave at least a 30 meter buffer around sites when work is being conducted near them.
So, where do we stand? Portions of two un-recorded historic roads were destroyed. The site boundary of an historic site was compromised but no artifacts were disturbed and no verified historic features were destroyed. Also, the site in question is likely not eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places although it is, as of the time of this writing, still un-evaluated. Unless the site was used by an important historical figure in the area, it will likely be ineligible and the mine would be allowed to plow through it anyway (with a monitor present).
Another factor in this saga is the fact that sporadic surveys have been done in the area before. Several times in the past 20 years the mine has had small pad-shaped areas and access roads surveyed. One of our jobs is to re-evaluate the previously recorded sites in the area. It is possible that the mine thinks they are working on one of the previously "cleared" areas. This may be true but they hired us to block survey the entire area and to report back with our findings and recommendations. They should check with us prior to any ground disturbing activities.
Here is where the conflict of interest comes in. The area we are surveying is BLM land. It is owned by the taxpayers of this country. The mine is leasing the land for it's use (and will likely be destroying it and "reclaiming" it later, but that is a topic for another discussion). If they damage un-evaluated cultural resources they could be subject to fines under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of ???? (ARPA). The only people that are going to report them to the proper authorities would likely be us. They are our client. We are costing them time and money. You can see the problem.
We have an ethical responsibility to ensure that the cultural resources on the property are treated with care and are diligently recorded for future generations to learn from. We also enjoy working and putting food on the table. It would be nothing for the mine to pay their fines and then award the next contract to another firm. They have literally mountains of money.
What should our PI's do? I think they'll start by talking to the environmental person at the mine. If that person acts favorably and responsibly then the problem is solved. We can still record most of the road that was destroyed and nothing on the site was really affected, this time. If they deny wrong doing then they should be reported. That is my feeling but I'm not responsible for making this decision.
It should be known that I would not hesitate in reporting them in the case of a denial of wrong-doing. It is our responsibility as stewards of the cultural heritage of this country to protect and defend those resources. I usually speak my mind and sometimes it gets me in trouble. In the end I believe that I'm doing good and that the end result, not my well being, is what matters.
What do you think? How would you react?
Written at the end of a winding road in the Coastal Range of Southern Oregon at the Skull Creek Recreation Area campground.