Don Rogers: Not so fast with writing off gold mine
Ironically enough, the way to clean up the environment around the old Idaho-Maryland Mine might well be reopening it.
You’d think nearby residents and environmental advocates would be eager — or at least willing — to explore this possibility before trying to smother the baby in the crib. To see whether tailings polluting the ground these past seven decades might finally be removed. Whether a million gallons a day of fresh drinking water might be welcomed in a thirsty county. All this under strict state scrutiny.
That’s the promise, anyway, the conditions under which the mine would have to operate, as well as allowable noise at the property line holding to a veritable whisper at 32 decibels.
Some loud advocates instead are making minor violations without fines or other punishment sound much bigger than they actually are.
A few neighbors have made stuff up entirely in their fear of what they think could happen. Never ending thunder. Big semis clogging roads 24 hours a day. Poisoned processes, poisoned water, pristine land ruined. None of this true.
The ghosts of mines past do bear watching, of course. Arsenic, cyanide, heavy metals. Ruined wells, pictures of Grass Valley landscapes denuded of trees, a swiss cheese of flooded tunnels beneath. Mine machinery indeed roaring night and day.
This all was life here once, when slavery was still legal, a Civil War had yet to be fought, and Mark Twain entertained at a couple of hotels still standing.
The mines were shut down during World War II and never really got going again. The Empire Mine sold to the state and became a park. Newmont Mining Corp. continues treating what has turned out to be slightly toxic wastewater at this and the North Star Mine, OK for washing hands and watering the lawn but not for drinking.
Nice that someone is. It’s not happening, at least not yet, at the Idaho-Maryland, once the No. 2 gold mine in the world. The tailings piled up to 15 feet deep at the surface are a Superfund candidate if the current suitor doesn’t clean them out. How many decades more will they just sit there?
The violations hollered about recently didn’t cause any actual harm. A contractor cutting some trees didn’t realize the work required a timber permit; he got a talking to. Grading a pad inside a 100-foot riparian line resulted in no sediment entering the creek. These were paper problems, fixable, thankfully.
These breaches merited raised eyebrows, a conversation, something well short of carrying on as if NID were about to build another dam in the watershed.
History to repeat
Gold mining will return to the foothills sure as rain in the coming decades.
The veins remaining below will prove too precious to ignore as reserves elsewhere play out. Up to 90% of the ore down there still awaits.
Grass Valley and Nevada City originally were mining towns and then buoyed through the Great Depression with the mines still going strong.
Today’s gold rush seems to be retirees able to cash out of their Bay Area houses and afford quieter homes and lives. This has brought a measure of economic strain, especially since the Great Recession of 2008-09, absent an underpinning of active mines.
Rise Gold is only the latest to try reopening the Idaho-Maryland. Financial difficulties and community pushback stopped the previous owner, Emgold, in 2010, before they even got to an environmental impact report. A draft report on Rise’s plan may be ready by September. Then things will get interesting.
Cynicism abounds about gold mining ever happening again. In this state? Today’s environment? Against such hostility, all those NIMBYs? That high of a cost, so much cleanup? Good luck, critics snicker.
Maybe so. Probably so, in our short sight. But if not Rise, then the next or maybe the next bid after that, years from now. It’s coming. Bank on it.
What conditions should a mine have to pass to reopen? This isn’t my decision, of course, but I boiled them down to three:
1. Truly improve the community’s environmental health.
2. Benefit the local economy.
3. Fit in the neighborhood.
In that order.
I don’t find myself persuaded by know-nothing neighbors resorting to rumors, scare-mongering environmental advocates, or chamber of commerce types who see no evil so long as a whiff of cash hangs in the air. All just so much gossip, fodder for social media, and there will be plenty.
Neither does lazy cynicism about dead mines staying that way forever and ever convince me of much more than a rather profound lack of foresight, scary even.
Technology and methods change. What was impossible, even laughable, yesterday often enough becomes today’s slam dunk.
So it’s not at all out of hand to envision success with wildly ambitious, expensive notions of reopening old gold mines where everyone till now has failed. And what if the new Idaho-Maryland could in fact satisfy all three conditions? Just imagine.
Shouldn’t we at least bother to find out?
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.
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