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Gaming Guru

Chris Jones
 

That's About the Size of it

28 September 2004

The machines there are huge, so big they make a fully grown man resemble a child's action figure posed beneath a toy Tonka truck in a backyard sandbox.

Tires towered 15 feet off the ground, and many passers-by stopped to pose for photographs next to an oversized dump truck or excavator. As others gawked at one machines' dinosaurlike scooping device or a sidewalk-size conveyor belt placed nearby, exhibitor Bill Elverman summed up this year's MINExpo International using the only three words that somehow seemed appropriate.

"Cool show, huh?"

Every fourth year, the National Mining Association brings its armada of heavy equipment -- and those who love to use it -- to the Las Vegas Convention Center. This year's showcase opened Monday and is expected to draw 1,200 exhibitors and 35,000 attendees before its scheduled Thursday conclusion.

Attendee Bill Caylor was among the many in awe of the machinery on display. He wished the general public could attend the expo, if only to gain a better appreciation of all that goes into extracting valuable materials from beneath the Earth's surface.

"People have no concept of the size of these machines," said Caylor, who has served as president of the Kentucky Coal Association since January 2001. "And it takes equipment like this to mine the raw materials people need to enjoy their everyday life. But a lot of people seem to think their energy comes just by flipping a switch on the wall."

A spokesman for Vernon Hills, Ill.-based Komatsu America Corp., Elverman found no shortage of people seeking information on his company's new 830E-AC, a massive dump truck that's capable of hauling up to 250 tons of material. Rather than ask, others simply climbed atop the 35-foot-tall truck to take in what's arguably the best vantage of the trade show floor.

The truck was taken apart at the factory and shipped in several semitrailers to Las Vegas, where it was reassembled and eventually driven onto the convention center floor, Elverman said.

"It would be too expensive to do something like this every year," Elverman said of the show's quadrennial schedule. "And the pace of innovation is not as quick as other industries" that stage large trade shows at least once a year, most notably high-technology and consumer electronics.

Still, Doug Driesner, mining services director for the Nevada Commission on Mineral Resources, is pleased Las Vegas hosts MINExpo every four years. Toiling in a state best known for its recreation, Driesner said the event generates worldwide exposure for Nevada's highly productive mines.

"It puts us on the map," Driesner said Monday from his organization's small trade-show booth.

Show or no show, few can discount Nevada's status within the mining industry. Last year, the state churned out nearly $3 billion in product. The nation's top gold producer, Nevada's nearly 7.32 million troy ounces ranked third in the world behind Australia and South Africa. The Silver State was also the country's top producer of silver, as well as barite, a key mineral used for manufacturing paint.

While those materials are more prevalent in Northern Nevada, the state's southern mines also produce an abundance of so-called "aggregate" materials: sand, gravel and crushed rock used to build highways and other construction projects, Driesner said.

Statewide gold production fell by more than 5 percent from 2002 to 2003, but Driesner said a rebound in gold prices has sparked an industrywide recovery. A state survey showed Nevada mining companies plan to spend $89.1 million on exploration this year, up from $62.9 million a year ago.

Such spending could lead to job growth, which last year fell for the fifth consecutive year thanks to mine closures and increased efficiency at some sites.

Nearly 8,800 Nevadans were employed in the mining industry last year, state records show, plus another 44,000 workers who provide supporting goods and services.

"Right now things are pretty nice and stable," Driesner said.