Local man tries to help improve Costa Rican gold mining

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

Gordon and Vivian Heimbecker recently returned from 2 ½ years in Costa Rica. They’re now set up with a suite in the Legion Manor in Slave Lake and are pretty much retired.

But for Gordon, at least, a lot of his thoughts are still with the people he has been trying to help in the Central American country. He’d been asked to apply his expertise in solving some persistent problems relating to gold mining. He feels bad that he’s had to abandon the effort – or at least not be there physically – but he is getting up there, and he’s in need of a hip replacement.

In fact it was the idea of getting a new hip more quickly that drew him back to Costa Rica – that and a request for help with the gold mining. He’d been there before, about 20 years ago.

“I had an invitation to help develop a little mine,” he says.

But it turned out the owner wasn’t as interested in the mining as he was in collecting money from investors. It was a scam, Gordon says. “We came back after a year.”

Born and raised near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Gordon had worked in the mining industry for about 20 years. One of his gigs was as a superintendent for a company mining gold in the La Ronge area. So he knew his stuff.

But after the Costa Rica thing didn’t work out, he got into setting up bulk propane stations for a company in Alberta. This took him and Vivian to various locations around the province, including Red Earth Creek and Slave Lake.

“I set up one in East Mitsue,” he says.

A few years ago, Gordon was in need of a hip replacement when COVID arrived on the scene and put the kibosh on any operations that weren’t considered emergencies. It was about that time that contacts in Costa Rica got back in touch with him, telling him “we can do hip replacements,” and “you can do some work for us.”

He was asked, he says, by the mining department for advice on how to deal with some of the problems caused by illegal mining. There are many of these small operations, he says, where anybody who finds a seam of quartz starts digging. It’s unsafe for the workers; not only that, the process uses harmful cyanide and mercury, which inevitable wash into the creeks and rivers, from which downstream users get their drinking water.

Then there’s the conflict in mining country near the border with Nicaragua, between Costa Rican miners and Nicaraguans who, “sneak over” to take advantage of the chance to get their hands on gold-bearing ore.

A further problem for the country is the fact a lot of the gold being extracted gets sent to Florida, and the government gets not a penny of royalties.

Add on top of that endemic corruption, and you’ve got quite a mess.

Heimbecker doesn’t pretend he had answers for all of it. But after taking a hard look at the situation, he did come up with some ideas for improvements. One aspect of it, he says, was to have a training school for miners set up. They’d learn about basic safety procedures and become certified, and licensed. They’d also learn about better methods of extracting gold from ore, which Gordon says could improve the recovery of gold from about 50 per cent to closer to 90 per cent. This would more than cover the increased costs associated with safer operations, plus paying a royalty to the government. And it would get the mercury and arsenic out of the equation.

In the meantime, he says, he’s been in touch with a couple of Canadian companies that are willing to lend their expertise, but they’ve made it quite plain they aren’t willing to pay any “crooked money” to politicians to do the work.

The whole thing is quite complicated, and it’s clear when you talk to Heimbecker he feels bad about having to leave the work unfinished. It’s also clear he feels an obligation to some of the people he got to know down there and who he was trying to help.

But he hasn’t given up.

He’s quite willing to talk about the situation and would like to hear from anyone who might like to find out more. He can be contacted by email at heimbeckergordon@gmail.com.

Gordon Heimbecker

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