Gold Mine Pits Jobs Against Environment

The main shaft of the Idaho-Maryland Mine goes down 3,280 feet i

The main shaft of the Idaho-Maryland Mine goes down 3,280 feet and could contain enough ore for one million ounces of gold. But it's almost entirely flooded with groundwater. Alex Chadwick, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Chadwick, NPR
The main shaft of the Idaho-Maryland Mine goes down 3,280 feet

The main shaft of the Idaho-Maryland Mine goes down 3,280 feet and could contain enough ore for one million ounces of gold. But it's almost entirely flooded with groundwater.

Alex Chadwick, NPR
Grass Valley, nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills, has become a tourist destination. i

Grass Valley, nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills, has become a tourist destination popular with retirees. Map: Jeremy VanderKnyff, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Map: Jeremy VanderKnyff, NPR
Grass Valley, nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills, has become a tourist destination.

Grass Valley, nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills, has become a tourist destination popular with retirees.

Map: Jeremy VanderKnyff, NPR
A sign warns to avoid contact with a stream running through Grass Valley.

A sign warns to avoid contact with a stream running through Grass Valley. The stream is contaminated by toxins leaching from the waste ore of another abandoned gold mine in the area. Alex Chadwick, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Chadwick, NPR

The California gold rush of the mid-1800s was the stuff of legends — fortunes made in a single pan of a mountain stream, boomtowns springing up overnight near a rich lode of ore... But soon all the gold that was easy to find and mine was gone, and most of those boomtowns became ghost towns.

Now gold is shooting up in value — thanks in large part to global uncertainty and volatile markets — and known gold deposits that had been too expensive to mine have suddenly become a lucrative opportunity.

In one former boomtown in the Sierra Nevada foothills, now called Grass Valley, some residents are wary of the environmental cost of going for the gold. And others would prefer to see the area's golden legacy remain a draw for history buffs and tourists, instead of a reborn industry.

Ross Guenther, a geologist and miner, believes the long-shuttered Idaho-Maryland Mine holds as many as a million ounces of gold. He has a plan to get to it. First, hundreds of millions of gallons of water must be pumped from a flooded maze of tunnels and shafts.

Separating the gold from the ore in the mine poses its own challenges. The extraction process creates huge waste piles called tailings, which can contain toxins such as mercury and arsenic.

Guenther insists the danger is minimal and says the water flooding the Idaho-Maryland Mine is safe enough to drink. He says he also has developed a process for turning most of the tailings into ceramic tile. He predicts that a revitalized mine will generate 400 jobs — a potential boom for the rural community.

Government officials have hired experts to conduct their own tests and analyze the mining plan. But the threat of environmental contamination still exists, and no one has yet come up with a plan should the new tailings prove to be a hazard.

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