California Ecosystem is Threatened by a Fresh Gold Rush

Susan Love discovered a house in the Sierra Nevada foothills where the Sacramento Valley steepens into the Sierra Nevada. Before her spouse’s death, she and her husband lived peacefully in this house.

In terms of the environment, though, things are shifting.

She has a front-row seat to a long-dormant gold mine that has recently come to life. Proposals for a Nevada-based business to revive a gold mine that was once the second-highest-producing in America have brought prospectors back to the Idaho-Maryland Mine, which was first discovered in 1852 and was once the nation’s second-largest producer.

Still, these hills contain an enormous amount of gold—and the stakes are high. In contrast, a strong environmental ethic and a trend toward tourism in many historic areas conflict with the restart of gold mining in California, despite the promise of new jobs more than a century and a half after thousands of migrants arrived to strike it rich.

For many towns, the hard-hat lifestyle of hard-rock mining is a thing of the past. Because they hope to attract tourists with their rich gold-mining history, these historic towns have taken a different stance on mining itself, which they see as no less dirty than in the past despite the improvements.

Earlier this year, Love, whose ancestors emigrated from Ohio to join the California gold rush, listed her property for sale and swiftly accepted an offer. After learning what was about to happen next door, the buyers pulled out. As a 69-year-old woman, she now fears that her home is worthless.

This is all about our local politicians and I think a lot of it will come down to money,” says Love, a retired preschool teacher. It’s not like there are any miners in this area, so where would they all come from?

In the Sierra foothills, where California’s 19th-century gold rush began, the return of a long-forgotten wealth is reshaping the state’s population and economy, often at the price of indigenous peoples and a vulnerable environment.

Gold’s soaring price has piqued attention beyond these shores, though. Companies ready to face community opposition and California’s environmental rules are eyeing shuttered hard-rock mines and distant fault zones rich in gold dust further south.

There is no doubt about economics. In 2017, the average gold price was $1,260 per ounce when Rise Gold Corp. purchased the Idaho-Maryland Mine. So far this year’s forecasts indicate that the average price will rise by 45 percent to $1,830 an ounce, a new record high.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the United States mined $10 billion worth of gold last year, the majority of which came from Western states. The state of California believes that mining, excluding fossil fuels, provides more than $500 million in economic activity each year, and gold mining here has been increasing since the early 2000s when it hit a low point.

According to Elizabeth Holley, an associate professor in the Colorado School of Mines’ department of mining engineering, “gold is utilized as a hedge against economic uncertainty, and we’ve certainly seen a lot of that recently.” It’s also worth noting that mining processes have progressed substantially since Idaho-heyday, Maryland’s making it possible to mine more efficiently and at lower ore grades.

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Gold’s popularity has spread far beyond the typical mining states in the West, according to Holley. There, she participates on an academy board looking into the possible consequences of gold mining in the state.

For a community, “the environmental and social implications are always concerning,” Holley added. I believe that historical mining techniques are often conflated with present mining operations because of the high level of regulation in place today.

Nevertheless, the prospect of additional exploration has sparked popular opposition, a debate over jobs versus community character that wonders if California still requires gold.

It is a luxury, not a necessity, for the industry to mine gold, according to local citizen Ralph Silberstein, who is the head of the Community Environmental Advocates Foundation and MineWatch, two groups opposed to the Grass Valley mine. Yes, there are several old mines in the area, but they all have a shady past.

Rising from the plain

Small quartz shards found in the desert east of Mount Whitney, some 300 miles south of Grass Valley, are the gold prospectors’ breadcrumbs.

Quartz is frequently associated with gold deposits. Corporate prospectors are looking for a lot of both in this area, as well as an entirely different area of the state. This arid, peaceful area of the Eastern Sierra is littered with microscopic, white, somewhat translucent minerals.

The Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone and the Timbisha Shoshone tribes revere the 22,000-acre Conglomerate Mesa, which rises from Lee Flat. It is administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

While other sections of the state are suffering from rising temperatures, Native American petroglyphs can be seen on the volcanic rocks that border the dirt road leading up to the mesa.

Wind flows down through the small canyons. Tiny silver tags, about the size of quarters, shine from the trunks of small trees, stones, and thick-brush branches. These little pieces of land are carved with the names of the people who intend to mine them for gold.

Death Valley and the state’s highest peaks separate the mesa from everything else in the vast desert landscape.

As U.S. Route 395 passes through the nearby town of Lone Pine, it proclaims, “Protect Conglomerate Mesa.” Avoid mining Death Valley’s doorstep..”

The Walker Lane, a geological fault that runs roughly parallel to the California-Nevada border, is a hotbed of exploration activity. Unlike the Sierra foothills, mining in these distant places necessitates a water-intensive technique.

When it comes to the American West, “it all boils down to the water,” Wendy Schneider, executive director of the Friends of the Inyo (FoI), a non-profit working to protect Conglomerate Mesa noted. No such thing exists.

K2 Gold, a Canadian business, has proposed a huge open-pit mining project for Conglomerate Mesa that uses cyanide leaching through the earth to extract gold. The company’s drill experiments may be seen in the bald areas on the mesa’s sloping plateau.

For reasons that aren’t quite clear, the Bureau of Land Management effectively stymied the project in March, which would have required dozens of miles of new roads and an additional 30 drill sites, more than the business had originally intended.

Conglomerate Mesa drilling sparked concerns from the public, Tribes, and other agencies,” the Bureau of Indian Affairs said in a statement. The BLM concluded that a more comprehensive environmental assessment was necessary because of these and other considerations.”

Following the order, the business reported that the project had been put on hold. The federal agency’s requirements for a thorough environmental impact assessment have been met by K2 Gold, which has informed opponents of the project in recent weeks, according to members of those groups. Both the FBI and K2 Gold refused to speak any further on the matter.

Those who support the Inyo and the local tribes are attempting to secure government protection for the area. Additionally, the area serves as a “black sky” preserve in a state where light pollution sometimes obscures star-filled nights.

There are hundreds of claims held by K2 Gold on the mesa. Schneider said that even stricter environmental regulations would not be sufficient to put an end to these claims because of federal legislation passed in the late 1800s with the express purpose of encouraging western growth and safeguarding mining rights as an incentive.

None of these safeguards will make it impossible to mine in this area,” she claimed. The values of Conglomerate Mesa are why we need to focus on them.”

A clash of economies

Tourists are drawn by the attraction of the past and queue up at gluten-free bakeries in Grass Valley, some 30 miles north of where gold was first discovered in this state. The brick-and-balcony façade of buildings that formerly stood during the Gold Rush today house sushi restaurants and wine tasting rooms.

The Golden Gate Saloon serves craft cocktails, and across the street from the Holbrooke Hotel, a restaurant called The Little Nugget is slated to open. The Del Oro — “of gold” — movie theater’s steeple rises out of town from the town center. When Susan Love’s Idaho-Maryland Mine first shut down in the 1980s, the landmark opened.

For Kendell Christianson, 69, a retired electronics repairman, the mine has little allure. “I’ve never met anyone who wants it,” he said. …What’s the point of all this?… Greed.”

Placards opposing the mine can be seen all around town, pasted into medians and landscaping of shopping malls. However, there is a lot of history to deal with.

At the county administrative office, where the decision to open the mine will be decided, an ancient mining cart stands as a symbol of the region’s identity. Development of the mine might result in an annual increase in property taxes of up to $10 million for the county.

There may still be gold in the earth, according to Nevada County’s director of planning, Brian Foss. As a result, “the board of supervisors will have to assess whether or not this is an appropriate use of this location,”

Approximately 175 acres of the Idaho-Maryland Mine are flanked by tall pines and fir trees. One of the main mine’s corners has a massive cement hole where the rock was originally carried from hundreds of feet deep to be split open for gold.

When the United States government closed it down in 1942 because of the war effort’s need for metals like copper, the mine produced 2.4 million ounces of gold. It restarted after World War II but never reached its pre-war levels of output until closing once more in 1956.

A reopening of the mine would be both visible and audible. The company’s mineral rights limit the mine’s surface size to 2,585 acres, but the gold reserves are concentrated in a smaller region, thus the mine might expand to 2,585 acres underground. The blasting would likely take place in such seams, but it could still be felt in some surrounding residences and businesses on the surface.

Gold mining company Rise Gold Corp. is requesting an 80-year permit from the board to operate its mine around the clock, seven days a week, as a sign of exactly how much gold it estimates remains in the ground.

As CEO Ben Mossman puts it, “If you could put this mine back in production as it was when it stopped, it would be one of the top gold mines on Earth.” He presents a series of core samples in his office here bearing thick seams of gold. “This is a large mine.”

About 1,000 tonnes of gold-bearing rock each day would be the company’s goal. It is estimated that the project’s annual earnings will reach $190 million, or nearly 4% of the county’s total economic output, as stated by Mossman.

As for the amount of gold and its quality, he admitted, “We truly don’t know”. A lot more needs to be accomplished. However, we can rely on past output rates as a guide.

According to Mossman, the project is expected to create more than 300 new jobs in the area, although the company does not plan to develop any dwellings in the already tight market. Those who reside here are worried about the strain on an already constrained housing market. Compared to the state’s 4.3 percent unemployment rate, the unemployment rate in the county is 6 percent. A regular sight is a “Help Wanted” ad.

Others are concerned about traffic congestion and environmental damage as a result of the gold processing industry’s usage of arsenic, mercury, and other carcinogens. It will cost around $3 million for rising Gold Corp. to clean up one of the most polluted areas of the mine site, which was left behind by a previous operator.

Mossman promised that precautions will be put in place to prevent a repeat of the incident. The county supervisors are relying on a more than 1,000-page environmental analysis to help them make a decision that might be made by the end of the year.

According to Mossman, “There used to be a huge gap in regulations between California and other states.” It’s become easier to get permits in California due to the growing regulatory burden in other jurisdictions.

Risk and Recollection

In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, this is fire country, and the South Yuba River valley is bone dry. As a result of mining at the site, an unknown number of private residential wells are expected to run dry, and there is also the possibility of chemical spillover from the mine’s ponds, which could end up in a well-known river system.

As the executive director of South Yuba River Citizens League, a non-profit that campaigns for and maintains the river that attracts almost a million tourists annually, Melinda Booth stated, “We must ask ourselves if this is the way we want to be exploiting our most valuable resource.” There appears to be a consensus that this isn’t the case.

There are saloons and lattes and boutiques in Nevada City, which is as near to the mine site as Grass Valley. There is also a museum in a storefront. “Erased” is the name of the exhibit.

After the discovery of gold in 1848, the Nisenan people were obliterated by the influx of newcomers, who currently number less than 150 individuals.

The federal government gave tribe status and land to the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan in 1913. It was not until the year 1964 that land set aside for the tribe was finally auctioned by the federal government.

For as long as she can remember, Shelly Covert, the museum’s director, has been fighting for the restoration of the tribe’s federal status and the land. She comes from a long line of tribal elders.

Covert stated, “We don’t have a voice.” In the words of the curator, “Erased” is a fitting moniker for this show.

Covert, now 55, recalls hearing stories as a child about her grandparents’ disdain for gold and how it was useless to them. Then, according to legend, the nuggets were so plentiful that they could be picked up and used as fishing weights or slingshot stones just off the ground!

‘It was scattered all over the place,’ she claimed. “It was a waste of time,” he said.

The Gold Rush, which displaced the Nisenan people, spread disease, and destroyed the terrain in and surrounding Grass Valley’s museum hall with its high-intensity mining, is one of the museum’s many exhibitions.

It has taken decades for the land to return to its natural state, with a lot of hand-holding, according to Covert. It always feels un-American to reject employment, employment, employment. “However, at what price?”

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