The Science of Sustainability

In Historic Gold Country, Old Mines Get New Life

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It's not the frenzy of 1849, but gold mining is quietly making a comeback in California. A soaring gold price is drawing miners back into the Sierra Nevada foothills, in some cases, to the very spots exploited by the original 49ers.

Not everyone is happy to see gold mining return. While some communities are concerned about the environmental costs, others see the chance for a "greener" gold rush this time around.

Miners today, as during the Gold Rush were searching for veins of white quartz with gold inside. (Photo: Lauren Sommer/KQED)

The return is being heralded in Sutter Creek, about 45 miles southeast of Sacramento. Just a few years ago, local resident Dan Boitano was a tour guide there. He led tourists into the empty, underground Lincoln Project Mine. In the late 1840s, miners flooded into these foothills when gold was discovered nearby.

“I’m actually a fifth generation miner in the area,” Boitano says. “My family came here for the Gold Rush.”

Boitano still works in this mine, but now, he’s mining. Hundreds of feet below ground, in a narrow tunnel, two of his colleagues drill into a solid face of rock. Matt Collins, chief operating officer of Sutter Gold Mining, Inc., looks on.

“This is December’s gold production right here in the palm of my hand,” Collins says, holding out a half an ounce of gold. “This is the first of what we hope will be many, many, many ounces of gold.”

Sutter managers hope to produce almost $200 million in gold over the next five years. The company is just starting full-scale production in this web of burrows – tunnels that only get darker and narrower the deeper we go.

“Remember when they first started mining here, they would have been mining with candles,” Collins says.

Miner Steve Ator outside the Lincoln Project Mine in Sutter Creek. (Photo: Lauren Sommer/KQED)

Mining was treacherous work for the original 49ers. They used hammers and dynamite in search of what’s just above my head: a vein of white quartz rock with dots of gold. “This one runs for many hundreds of feet,” Collins says.

This is a slice of the Mother Lode – the most legendary gold deposit in the state. There are two dozen old mines within ten miles of this one. They produced millions of ounces of gold up until World War II, when work was suspended for the war effort.

“After having let the mines flood, the timbers rot, the neglect and the lack of maintenance, it became very expensive to reopen the mines,” says Collins.

The Mother Lode still holds plenty of gold and with gold prices having steadily risen to around $1,700 dollars an ounce, reopening old mines has become tempting, but not necessarily easy.

“California is burdensome. I would say this is one of the toughest regulatory climates there is on the planet,” Collins says.

Some of the Golden State's strict environmental laws spring from the legacy of environmental damage that mining has left behind. Early miners processed gold with toxic mercury, dumping millions of pounds of it into the watershed. Even today, some fish aren’t safe to eat as far downstream as San Francisco Bay.

“Today we have to have a much different approach. We have come into a project like this thinking about these potential impacts,” Collins says.

Those potential impacts are a big issue in another community where a local gold mine is trying to reopen. About two hours north in Nevada City, the San Juan Ridge Mine originally tried to get going in the 1990s, but things didn’t go so well.

“My wells right around us here in the north Columbia area started to go dry,” says local resident Kurt Lorenz.

The mine had hit an underground formation full of water. As workers pumped the water out, 14 neighborhood wells dried up. The mine paid for deeper wells to be drilled, but Lorenz says the new wells had poor water quality. The local school, Grizzly Hill Elementary, was told it couldn’t drink the water.

“The solution was the mine started paying for bottled water to be delivered to the school,” Lorenz says.

The mine put in a water treatment plant but Lorenz, who was on the school board at the time, says it was years before the school was using tap water again. In the end, the mine shut down because of the added costs and flagging gold prices.

Now, the issue is surfacing again because the mine wants to reopen. “We don’t want a repeat of what’s happened in the past,” says the schools current principal, James Berardi. “We can’t take that chance. We don’t want to do it again.”

“I don’t expect the community to take any significant risks for the benefit of my operation,” says Tim Callaway, CEO of San Juan Mining Corporation. He says the risks are lower this time because the mine will use better surveying and engineering.

Callaway knows it’s a tough sell in this community, but points to the economy. “What this project offers is really high-paying jobs,” he says. “There are very, very few industries or jobs in rural communities.” The decision will ultimately be up to Nevada County, which is doing an environmental review.

All of this adds up to an interesting moment for gold in California, says Izzy Martin of the non-profit Sierra Fund. There are environmental risks, she says, because not all counties are equipped to do thorough reviews of proposed mines.

But Martin also sees an opportunity. “Gold mining around the world is heart-breaking to think about,” she says. “People use really toxic chemicals. There’s no doubt that if we could open a mine in California that met our environmental quality act standards, our clean water acts standards, it would be the cleanest, greenest gold in the world.”

Martin wants to see "green" gold standards set up in California that would enable consumer labeling. Responsible mining, she says, has the potential to give gold an entirely new legacy in the state. A handful of other proposed mines are hoping to join that legacy.

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Category: Engineering, Environment, News, Radio

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About the Author ()

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.
  • julie

    Tim Calloway is insane to be showing his face in this neighborhood again. He left us with such a mess, dry wells, toxic wells, and logging his property to pay his bills, he left the land treeless, fields of scotch broom and manzanita fill in his logged sites, leaving us with fire danger to boot!

  • Red_Geologist

    The Mining industry is cyclical, most extreme in the case of the precious metals. What is priced high now will be a bust in a few years. So if you let the mine go in promising great jobs, they will disappear withing a few years as the price cycle changes, and the Public Will Get The Shaft. The public will get the abandoned mine with toxic waste water, toxic metals leaching from waste rock dumps onto trout streams. You taxpayers will not have jobs but you will have a cleanup tax bill.

    When Mining comes to a community, the Public Loses in the end.

    • Enviromental_Geologist

      Wow, for a state pretty much built on mining, you really have no clue as to what is going on. "toxic metals and water" is complete BS. This stuff has been in the earth for billions of years. You would be lucky to get an influx of money from mining and what comes along with it. Jobs equal people spending money in the communities, purchasing vehicles, houses, etc.. thats all taxable. Thats what helps you get out of the glut that you are currently in. Open your eyes and realize that historically and today, mining is one of the only things that will stimulate growth in an area.

  • Graham Luell

    Re-opening old mines with new techniques reminds me of our search for oil with new techniques in places that were previously too expensive, like the oil sands in Canada, and also it reminds me of our search for natural gas with new fracking techniques. It makes sense that profiteers will do it when the price of gold, oil, etc. goes high enough. As long as there's a demand… We need oil and natural gas, but do we really *need* gold?
    I wonder if we really *need* the gold mines, you know, as a society.

  • Patrick J. Glade

    With all these mining and political whirlwind, I just hope they will think about the wellfare of the environment. http://www.camelminingproducts.biz/