Mar 7, 2005 – Most residents agree that the quality of Grass Valley’s natural landscape is an essential part of the town’s permanent economic base.  Entrepreneurs, professionals, young families and retirees continue to move here to enjoy the town’s extraordinary quality of life – the best of old-time California located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.

Should the town risk sacrificing those very qualities in short-term efforts to provide a few hundred jobs in industries that are ultimately unsustainable?

This question, perhaps more than any other, is the one that elected officials, planners,  and others involved in Grass Valley’s long-term economic development will have to wrestle with as they decide whether or not to grant the permits and re-zoning that a junior mining company from Canada needs to open the Idaho-Maryland gold mine that shut down in 1956.   Should the mine open, it will reach full production around 2017.

Today, is publishing the first in a series of articles on the Idaho Maryland Mine proposal.  The report, entitled Golden Gamble in Grass Valley, is written by Doug Mattson, a former reporter for the town’s newspaper, The Union.  He covered a wide range of land use issues including population growth, housing, transportation as well as the proposed opening of the Idaho-Maryland Mine.  Mattson now lives in Albuquerque, NM and works as a newspaper editor and freelance reporter.

If the mine does open, it will be the first time permits will have been granted for a fully-operational hardrock gold mine within the city limits of a modern, thriving California town of 13,000 residents, not including those who live or will live in the sprawling unincorporated areas.

This will also be the first hardrock gold mine operated by Emgold Mining Corporation, which until now has restricted its activities to exploration, not development, extraction, processing, or reclamation.

On February 9th  Emgold submitted its application to the City of Grass Valley.  Whatever happens, it won’t happen fast.  The earliest the mine could open would be next year.  But residents are starting to pay attention to the application process.  Whether they think the mine is a good or bad idea, they know it has the potential to change the face of their hometown.

Why a special report on the Idaho-Maryland Mine proposal?  What makes this proposed development different than any other project that typically comes before local government?

While each proposed mining operation should be judged on its own merits, including this one, there are facts in common to all modern day mining:

  • According to the EPA, aside from global warming, mining constitutes the most significant threat to ecosystems worldwide.  The agency estimates that mining has polluted 40% of western watersheds and has identified the mining industry as the largest toxic polluter in the U.S.
  • There are up to 500,000 abandoned mine sites throughout western North America, many of which are continuing to cause environmental damage.
  • A single gold ring leaves 20 tons of mine waste behind.  Most gold is not used for essential industries, with over 80% used to make jewelry.
  • Every year, mines in the U.S. generate an amount of waste equivalent in weight to nearly nine times the trash produced by all its cities and towns combined.
  • Metals mining employs just 0.09 percent of the global workforce but consumes as much as 10 percent of the world’s energy.
  • Mining exposes native rock and mineral waste to oxygen and water, allowing acids and heavy metals to leach into the surface and groundwater.
  • Processing the ores requires toxic chemicals such as cyanide and sulfuric acid.  In 1998, Montana became the only U.S. state that bans the use of cyanide in mining, including heap leaching in the open and vat-leaching in enclosed containers.  In 2004, Montana voters rejected an industry-backed initiative to repeal the ban.
  • Mining is water intensive, requiring the use of a community’s groundwater, streams, and rivers. It is impossible to predict the effect that mine dewatering will have on regional aquifers, wells, springs, ponds, and stream levels.  Subsidence can occur.
  • Dumping excess mine water into streams is equally problematic. Although normal stream flows may dilute salts, metals and other chemicals, they can become concentrated in sediments and aquatic life. The amount and timing of discharge can affect an entire riparian ecosystem not adapted to unseasonable flows.
  • When mining ends, remediation and reclamation can take years and millions of dollars.  Recent studies of disclosure practices indicate that mining companies often understate such impacts in permit applications, environmental impact assessments, and financial reporting.  When confronted with the cost of remediation, they can declare bankruptcy, impacting creditors, shareholders, and taxpayers.
  • Even the most experienced mining firms can’t promise that no pipe will burst, no valve will fail, no truck will overturn, no employee will make a mistake and no act of nature will conspire to cause an unexpected event. Gold mining is inherently hazardous to the communities surrounding a mine.

This is what makes the Idaho-Maryland Mine proposal controversial, complex, and unlike any other to come before local decision-makers in recent times.

Some hydrologists believe that mining shouldn’t be allowed to occur near any community water source. Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, authors of Blue Gold, remind us that water use is growing twice as fast as population, yet there is no more water today than there ever was on Earth. Our planet is encased within a closed hydrological system, where water is constantly recycled through rainfall and evaporation, with none of it ever leaving the atmosphere. Not only is there the same amount of water there was when the planet formed more than 4.5 billion years ago, it’s exactly the same water. We are drinking the same water saber-toothed tigers drank. We can’t make more of it, but we can make much of it unusable for man or beast.

However, miners must mine where the gold is. And, right now, Emgold says there’s enough of it under Grass Valley to warrant the loan of the town’s allotment of the West’s new gold – water.