Mineral Resources:

Increased Attention Being Given to Cyanide Operations

RCED-91-145: Published: Jun 20, 1991. Publicly Released: Jun 24, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the environmental consequences of mining operations using cyanide to extract gold and other minerals from federal lands, focusing on the: (1) hazards of cyanide operations to wildlife and the environment; and (2) efficacy, implementation, and enforcement of existing laws and regulations governing cyanide extraction operations.

GAO found that: (1) as of January 1990, there were 119 active cyanide operations on federal land in Nevada, California, and Arizona, with 113 on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and 6 on lands managed by the Forest Service; (2) cyanide operators reported over 9,000 cyanide-related wildlife deaths, mostly involving migratory waterfowl, between 1984 and 1990; (3) cyanide operators typically used hazing techniques to scare wildlife away from operations, but they were not as effective over the long term as covering or fencing cyanide ponds; (4) examination of 31 inadvertent cyanide discharges from operations indicated minimal environmental damage; (5) BLM, the Forest Service, state agencies, and other federal agencies had adequate authority to regulate cyanide operations and enforce laws to protect wildlife and the environment from their potential hazards, but there was little coordination among the agencies, and the agencies had varying reporting requirements regarding cyanide operations, discharges, and wildlife deaths; (6) in August 1990, BLM issued a cyanide management policy, and Nevada recently enacted legislation requiring operators to obtain permits for cyanide ponds and report wildlife deaths, but Arizona, California, and the Forest Service lacked overall cyanide management policy; and (7) BLM required quarterly inspection of cyanide operations, but the states and the Forest Service did not have minimum inspection requirements.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service has prepared its response to the GAO report, which states that it does not need a new agencywide cyanide policy. Instead, it will improve its management of cyanide operations through updated monitoring procedures, a recently created hazardous and toxic materials program, a new comprehensive training program, and its continuing research program with the Bureau of Mines.

    Recommendation: To better prepare the Forest Service to respond to the potential hazards of cyanide operations, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to develop and implement an agencywide policy specifically aimed at managing cyanide operations on Forest Service land. This policy should include: (1) minimum acceptable design requirements; (2) mandatory operator reporting of all cyanide-related wildlife deaths and cyanide solution discharges; and (3) regular inspections of all cyanide operations by trained staff.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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