A new gold rush pits money and jobs against California’s environment
Companies are seeking to open old mines and explore in new sensitive regions, amid resistance from Californians who want the Gold Rush to remain part of history
Below are a few excerpts. Read the full column in the Washington Post.
SCOTT WILSON Senior National Correspondent, The Washington Post July 17, 2022
GRASS VALLEY, Calif. — Where the Sacramento Valley steepens into the Sierra Nevada, Susan Love found a home with big windows and pine-forest views. It was the house she shared happily with her husband before his death.
The surroundings, though, are changing.
A long-dormant gold mine within view of her front garden is showing signs of life. Once the second-highest-producing gold mine in the nation, the Idaho-Maryland Mine is again in the sights of prospectors, this time a Nevada-based company proposing to reopen it in this place born more than a century and a half ago in a rush of gold.
“Gold is used as a hedge against economic insecurity, and we’ve certainly seen a lot of that in recent years,” said Elizabeth Holley, an associate professor in the Colorado School of Mines’ department of mining engineering. “And if you consider the time when Idaho-Maryland operated, the methods have matured greatly and today you can mine much more efficiently and at lower grades of ore.”
Given the high prices, Holley said, the interest in gold has expanded well beyond traditional mining states in the West. She serves on a National Academies of Science board examining the potential effects of gold mining in Virginia.
“The environmental and social impacts are always concerning for a community,” Holley said. “But modern mining is highly regulated and I do think people conflate historic practices with what mining is now.”
Nonetheless, the potential for new prospecting has inspired a visible public resistance, a jobs vs. community character debate, that at its heart asks whether the Golden State really needs gold anymore.
“There is no industrial need for gold — it is just a luxury,” said Ralph Silberstein, a 24-year resident here who heads the Community Environmental Advocates Foundation and MineWatch, a group that opposes the Grass Valley project. “Sure there are a lot of old mines around here, but all have a toxic history behind them.”
A Canadian company called K2 Gold has proposed a major project to mine Conglomerate Mesa [Near Death Valley] through an open-pit system, which uses a chemical process that in this case involves cyanide leaching through earth to drag out gold. Bald spots along the mesa’s rolling plateau are evidence of the company’s drill tests.
“It all comes down to water, as does everything in the American West,” said Wendy Schneider, executive director of the Friends of the Inyo, a nonprofit seeking to protect Conglomerate Mesa. “And there is none.”
The Idaho-Maryland Mine has raised concerns about water — an unknown number of private-home wells are predicted to run dry because of mining use near the site itself, in addition to the potential chemical spillover from its ponds that could make its way into a highly popular river system.
“We have to ask ourselves if this is the way we want to be using our most precious resource,” said Melinda Booth, executive director of the South Yuba River Citizens League, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of and helps maintain a river that draws nearly a million visitors a year. “I think the community says no.”
Scott Wilson is a senior national correspondent for The Washington Post, covering California and the West. He has previously served as The Post's national editor, chief White House correspondent, deputy assistant managing editor for foreign news, and as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.