|Object Name||Clipping, Newspaper|
TITLE: Mercury Mystery. Secret Government Use Helps Perk Up, Output At California Mines SUBTITLE: Sonoma Doubles Production, Bonanza and Hermes. Mines Reopen Prices Skyrocket Is A.E.C. Part of Puzzle? AUTHOR: BY ED CONY, Staff Reporter PUBLISHER: THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
GUERNEVILLE, Calif. - In the sweltering heat 975 feet below the earth's crust here, miners are hacking out the raw material for a mystery.
It's a heavy red rock called cinnabar. When this ore is crushed, then processed in a furn ace and condenser, it yields the familiar silvery liquid that fills your household thermometer - mercury. A secrecy-shrouded government mercury-buying program, possibly connected with atomic energy project needs, is sending industrial users scurrying for supplies.
The hungry demand has sent the price of a 76-pound flask soaring to a record $325 on the New York market, compared with a years-ago price of $186 and a post-war low of about $70 in 1950. This, coupled with establishment of the first government-guaranteed price floor in the U. S. mercury industry's history, is sparking the reopening of a number of idle mines and expansion of others.
Sonoma Quicksilver Mines, which is currently turning out 250 flasks a month here about 75 miles north of San Francisco, will double its production "in three months or so," according to Henry Tudor, president. This will be done by opening a new property on a steep mountain slope 48 miles northeast of Winnemucca, Nev. a processing furnace, power lines and other facilities are being erected now.
Two-thirds of the domestic output of mercury, also known as quicksilver, comes from mines here in California. New Idria Mining & Chemical Co., biggest member of this small-size industry where payrolls range from a top of 130 workers on down to one-man operations, is stepping up output at its mine in the Call Mountains, 160 miles south of San Francisco
A year ago 300 flasks was a good month's production there. Now the mine is producing 500 flasks a month, and the company still is stepping up output month by month, A source close to the company predicts it Will reach 1,000 flasks a month before leveling off.
Clipping along at a steady 400-flasks-amonth pace is Cordero Mining Co., owned by Sun Oil Co. and producing at the Cordero Mine in McDermitt, Nev. "We're looking around at properties with an idea of expanding," says Sam Williston, vice president.
Dickering for California Mine
"We've leased the site of the old furnace used for years at the New Almaden," explains Jim. "Lots of quicksilver leaked out of those old furnaces, and my partner and I hope to take out as much as a million dollars worth of mercury from this site. We should get 10 to 15 flasks a week with a crew of five or six men."
Here's the way Jim works. He gets a little cinnabar, the heavy red ore from which mercury is extracted, to the surface and feeds it into "retort" which he's built himself.
"Just a Still"
"A retort," says Jim, "is really just a still. Instead of feeding it mash to make moonshine, you feed it rock to make mercury." The cinnabar, after being crushed to 1/2 inch rock, is cooked in the simple furnace for eight to twelve hours. The mercury is drawn off as a gas and piped into a condensing unit which precipitates it as the familiar silvery liquid.
Another "retort man," W. L. MacKinnon, is working close to the New Almaden at the Guadalupe, Mine, which he has leased for the next three years.
Using dynamite, jack-hammers, and miner's picks to extract rich red ore from an old tunnel, Mr. MacKinnon and Eddie Austin his 18-year-old associate, are getting eight to ten flasks of quicksilver a month out of a small retort which handles only two tons of ore a week. "We charge it twice a day, about 8 o'clock in the morning and again at 8 in the evening, and never give it a chance to cool off," says Mr. MacKinnon.
With plans to build a furnace capable of consuming a ton or two of ore a day, and with an open-pit operation under way on a "dump" or old furnace site, he hopes to make $20,000 to $25,000 in the next year with any luck."
Born in a mining camp at Searchlight, Nev., Mr. MacKinnon was a gold miner for 20 years before switching to mercury about three years ago. He and young Eddie live right on the Guadalupe.
Complaint About TV
Their silver-sided trailer - complete with telephone and TV set - is drawn up in the shadow of a gaunt old mining shed falling to ruin and an abandoned mining shack in which they've set up shower facilities. A trim flower garden surrounds the trailer in contrast to nearby slag piles. Their only complaint about their living quarters "Channel :13 doesn't come in well at all."
How does a large-scale mercury operation compare with these colorful one and two-man operations which are springing up in increasing ,numbers these days? Sonoma Quicksilver's mine here is a highly-mechanized operation typical of the bigger mercury mines.
Two shifts of miners - 38 underground men altogether - working a six-day week extract an average of 140 tons of ore a week from veins of cinnabar on the sixth to tenth levels of the mine. They use fairly standardized mechanical mining methods - pneumatic drills, dynamite, and ore-scooping machines - in their work, which takes them 975 feet below the surface and more than 600 feet below sea level. The temperature is so high that forced ventilation is required to cool the air.
When the ore reaches the mouth of the tunnel it is dumped into a crusher which cuts big rock-chunks into 1 1/2-inch rock. Conveyers then give the rock a short ride to two Gould Rotary" furnaces which consume 120 tons of ore a week.
Another Cordero official confirms reports the firm is interested in the currently-closed Reed Mine in Lake County north of San Francisco - a mine which has produced 250 to 300 flasks a month. Bradley Mining Co., owner of the Reed Mine, says negotiations for lease of the mine are under way.
Other smaller mercury mining outfits are jacking up their output too.
One of the reasons frequently advanced for the mercury shortage that's encouraging this production expansion is a falling-off in foreign supplies, partly as a result of alleged Soviet gobbling of Italian and other producing nations' output. But U. S. Bureau of Mines figures throw cold water on this theory.
Foreign imports, which have periodically undersold U. S. producers and have been blamed for U. S. mine shutdowns, accounted for 83,393 flasks of the 97,184 available to the U. S. last year. Imports in the first half of this year, however, were actually at the higher annual rate of 88,192.
Government Mystery Moves
These higher imports plus increased domestic production are combining to make more mercury available to the U. S. in 1954 than a year earlier. But less of this bolstered supply is finding its way to thermometer makers, industrial and control instrument makers and other commercial consumers. Government buyers are grabbing it up - for what purpose no one will disclose.
Bureau of Mines figures show that when 1953 consumption by U. S. users is subtracted from the supplies available in this country, 44,000 flasks are seen to have "vanished." Two-thirds of this liquid metal disappeared from the market in the fourth quarter, the period in which prices began their long climb to today's record level. This year the amount that's vanishing has shot up sharply - to 32,000 flasks in the first six months alone.
Quantities of mercury have disappeared into the government's stockpiles and into other even more hush-hush government uses in years past, too. The amount being taken now is considerably greater, however, and indications are that the bulk of it is not going into the stockpile. (For a fuller report on the mystery of what the government is doing with all this mercury, see story below.)
Price Floor -
The price rise resulting from the scramble by government and industrial buyers of the liquid metal is not the only factor encouraging miners to step up their output. Mercurial ups and downs in quicksilver prices "have ruined the miners in the past," says an official of the California State Division of Mines. "They've been burned so often, they hesitate to reopen mines - an expensive operation - just because the price goes shooting up,"
But this time the miners aren't so hesitant because, for the first time in more than 100 years of mercury mining, the government has stepped in and put a floor under prices to encourage production. It is offering American producers $225 a flask over the next three years for 125,000 flasks. On an annual basis, this is nearly three times the amount U. S. mines produced in 1953. The present price is well above the $225 government-guaranteed floor, of course.
0. Hyde Lewis, New Idria vice president, says: "The government price floor is an incentive to open up mines. Everyone has always been afraid to put money into quicksilver be-cause of the sharp price fluctuations."
A part of New Idria's production increase is coming from new ore discovered in a prospecting program costing $365,000 - 75 per cent of it financed by a Defense Minerals Exploration loan from the government.
"The D.M.E.A. loans, the price floor, and the raising of depletion allowances from 15% to 23% just this month - all this amounts to the first government aid we've ever had toward stabilizing this industry," says Mr. Lewis.
The New Idria, Cordero and Sonoma mines reported output in the second quarter equal to 75% of total U.S. production in the period. Among the other "major mines" in this small industry that are also stepping up their operations is California Quicksilver Mines at Wilbur Springs, Calif. It is installing a new furnace at the Abbott mine which is expected to double its average monthly production from an estimated 150 flasks to 300 flasks.
The Bonanza Oil & Mine Corp.'s Bonanza Mine, in Sutherlin, Ore., closed from February to June, produced 80 flasks in August and expects to up that figure to 120 flasks "in another six months, after we get in operation a furnace we haven't used in eight years," ac-cording to Burt Avery, mine superintendent.
"Assurance" for Operators
"The government floor, even though it's below the current price, gives operators assurance they can go ahead with development plans," says Mr. Avery.
Back in operation after being closed most of the summer is United Mercury Mines' Hermes mine, 7,600 feet up in Idaho's Salmon River Mountains. "We'll turn out about 100 flasks this month," says J. J. Oberbillig, president,' "and I hope -about 200 next month."
Another mine which may soon be back in production is the New Almaden, 12 miles south of San Jose, Calif., in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Easily the most famous mercury mine in America, the New Almaden, first mined in 1824, is also California's , oldest mine of any kind. Over a million flasks of quicksilver have been extracted from 100 miles of underground works which honeycomb its 3,300 acres - more mineral wealth, it is claimed, than any single California gold mine has yielded.
But the New Almaden, except for a period during World War II, hasn't known any big-scale mining since 1925. This month, however, its owners, the Sexton family of Philadelphia, leased the property to an operator who plans to start production again on a modest scale
The bigger mining companies aren't the only ones hot after a bonanza in mercury. Small independent operators, most of them, veteran miners, may be seen these days poking around in the ruins, of long-dormant mercury mines. The Quicksilver Producers Association in San Francisco; which buys most of the mercury from these small operators, reports it's now buying from about 40 individuals com-pared with 10 a year ago.
Typical of these independent miners is Jim Tobar, who's just getting underway a dump operation "at the bottom of the hill" adjacent to the New Almaden. He's now digging the first of a series of "glory holes" - big open holes 20 or 30 feet deep.
|Cataloged by||Boudreault, Art|