Enterprise: Eureka?

Outside magazine, December 1997

Enterprise: Eureka?

Above the din of doubters, a prospector swears a filthy Canadian river will make him filthy rich
By Trevor Curwin

'Oh, it's down there, all right. that gold is definitely there, as we speak," says Jim Ford from the bow of his steel barge after a long day of dredging. "But I guess it's not going anywhere right now." Given the three-foot-thick river ice that's due to move in this month, it's unlikely that the ten million ounces of precious metal tailings believed to be embedded in a pile of thick, resinous sludge on the bottom of eastern Canada's Ottawa River will disappear before the spring thaw. Still, if the thought of an estimated $330 million in gold, silver, and platinum lying directly beneath his boat makes Ford a bit anxious, it's no wonder: He's the mastermind behind a scheme to cash in on what has become an embarrassing black mark on Canada's environmental scorecard.

It seems the golden sludge — certainly not a naturally occurring substance in the region's crumbly limestone terrain — arrived at its current location via a rather murky chain of events. At the center of things is the Royal Canadian Mint, a 99-year-old riverfront refinery that in the last year alone churned out some 3.3 million precious-metal coins. According to Ford and his two partners, however, the mint has been producing more than just commemorative currency. "We've tracked the ounces that came into the mint and the ounces that left," says the 51-year-old prospector, whose river assessment study was completed with the help of a government hydrometallurgist. "And let's just say there is a lot unaccounted for." According to his estimates, 35 tons of gold and 80 tons of silver shavings were accidentally flushed through the mint's outflow pipe during the plant's first 60 years and have now coagulated — along with heavy metals, agricultural runoff, and dissolved chemicals from upstream nuclear power plants and timber mills — into massive sludge piles. "The river's like a turbid, gray-green soup," says Michael Murphy, vice-president of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists' Club and staunch advocate of cleaning up the 696-mile-long river. "And precious-metal deposits don't help matters."

True, but they certainly don't hurt if, like Ford, you're in the mining business and have access to a 300-ton dredging barge, complete with core drills and a 60-foot crane. Under those circumstances, one person's environmental blunder can be another's financial windfall. "It's a matter of scooping up the sludge," explains Ford, who staked a claim to a mile-long section of river in front of the mint in 1991 and began test-dredging the silty river bottom last summer. "Then you let it dry, and the gold separates easily. The cost is nothing compared to mining."

If it all sounds too good to be true, consider the bickering that's commenced in recent months over whether or not the outflow pipe — and, hence, the gold — even exists. "They can look at the blueprints of the building, but there's no pipe," declares mint spokesman Pierre Morin, apparently unaware of Ford's claim that his barge inadvertently rammed the elusive pipe during a recent dredging session.

Such squabbling aside, Ford has earned the cautious endorsement of environmentalists who agree that — gold or no gold — his scheme can't help but cleanse this section of the beleaguered Ottawa. "It's a great idea," says Murphy. "Maybe they'll get some of the other toxins while they're at it." Meanwhile Ford, in true treasure-hunter form, is keeping his eyes on the prize. "Sure, I'm glad to help. But, you know, I'm really just here for the gold."

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