★ Josie Crawford: Forever issues plague mines
If the world's largest mining company with strong ties to Grass Valley hasn't cleaned up its legacy mining problems, what makes us think Rise Gold and government regulators will be more responsible this time? Local biologist, Josie Crawford, tells the harrowing stories and how it took years of costly litigation and expensive treatment plants to begin to resolve the messes.
Read in The Union.
Merry Byles Daley used to walk her students from Hennessey School to Memorial Park to play and learn in the creek. That is, until the day the classroom tadpoles died from the creek water she added to their aquarium. The creek was Magenta Drain, named for the color of its water when it came out of the ground. It was the color of acid mine drainage and came from Empire Mine.
Arsenic, manganese and iron were in Magenta Drain. These heavy metals contaminate our soil and water. If the Idaho-Maryland Mine reopens, these are the same metals we will need to deal with during their operation and forevermore.
Gold often occurs with rocks that contain sulfides. When sulfides contact water and air, they form sulfuric acid which leaches heavy metals from the rocks. When the mines closed, miles of tunnels filled with rainwater and began draining into the creeks. Acid mine drainage is considered the most serious threat to streams because of its toxicity. And it is forever.
There are a lot of songs and stories that tell us just how long forever is.
Here are the short forever stories of acid mine drainage from North Star, Empire and Idaho-Maryland mines, and the struggle to get accountability.
Newmont Mining Corp. owned North Star and Empire Mines when they closed in 1956. Heavy metals contaminated Magenta Drain and Little Wolf Creek. Agencies were aware of the high level of metals since 1981 yet did little until 2011, when a treatment plant was built at Empire Mine State Historic Park . Thirty years!
It is a similar story with North Star Mine. Three mine features were discharging effluent directly into Wolf Creek. Then, in 2000, the Drew Tunnel was accidentally punctured during a construction project and effluent flowed into the Grass Valley wastewater treatment plant, overwhelming it during storms, resulting in numerous sewage spills with heavy metals into Wolf Creek. Our beautiful creek. This went on for 14-plus years! Yes, I am shouting.
These mines closed in 1956 because the price of gold fell, and costs increased. This will happen again. Mines close when they are not profitable, no matter the owner. A small corporation may go bankrupt and leave cleanup to the taxpayers. What would a large corporation do?
Newmont Mining Corp., the largest gold mining company in the world, did not go bankrupt. They kept their mineral rights and some property here. Newmont has deep roots here. North Star was its first gold mine.
Yet when effluent from those mines — with arsenic, manganese, iron, zinc, lead, and copper — spilled into Magenta Drain in Memorial Park, where you and your children might have played, and Wolf Creek, where some of us fish and swim, and the wastewater treatment plan, where your poop and metals were spilled into Wolf Creek because of Newmont effluent, did Newmont rush to clean it up for the people of Grass Valley? No, they did not.
It took years of costly litigation, a grand jury investigation and some expensive treatment plants to begin to resolve these messes.
In 2014, a chilling grand jury report addressing the problems of Lava Cap Mine, North Star Mine and Empire Mine found that for over 30 years, federal, state and local governmental agencies failed to coordinate, communicate, accept responsibility or properly enforce cleanup and abatement orders and legal settlements. And that the health and welfare of residents and their water quality may be compromised.
In 2011, Newmont and the state park built the Empire Mine treatment plant. Newmont built the North Star Passive Treatment Project in 2015.
Rise Gold is planning a more active, higher chemical treatment plant for dewatering the tunnels. The problem is that these problems will never go away. Spills happen — to creeks and people.
This water will need to be treated forever. Mine tunnels will fill, rupture, leak and leach heavy metals forever. We can’t predict when or where or if anyone will notice or take responsibility.
If the world’s largest gold mining corporation, with strong ties to our community, is not moved to clean up its legacy problems, then who will?
If the agencies charged with regulating are continuously understaffed, who will enforce cleanups? Who will pay to treat these sites forever?
Like many fevers, gold fever can cloud the mind. In the quest for quick gain for ourselves or our community, we may forget the long-term costs of mining. They are many. Some are metals. They are forever.
My name is Josie and I speak for the creeks.
Josie Crawford is a biologist and the executive director of Wolf Creek Community Alliance. Thanks to Dale Peterson, she lives on Wolf Creek.