AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Gold mines are reopening in California, some dating all the way back to the Gold Rush. Soaring gold prices are drawing mining companies back into the Sierra Nevada foothills. While some communities aren't happy to see gold mining return, others see a chance for a greener gold rush. We hear that story from Lauren Sommer of member station KQED.
LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Just a few years ago, Dan Boitano was a tour guide in California's historic gold country.
DAN BOITANO: We would start out by lining everybody up on the side of the old shop building and getting them into hard hats and...
SOMMER: Boitano led tourists into an empty underground gold mine, the Lincoln Project Mine in Sutter Creek, California. In the late 1840s, miners flooded into these foothills when gold was discovered nearby. Today, Boitano still works in the same mine, but he's not leading tours anymore.
BOITANO: I'm actually a fifth-generation miner in the area. My family came here for the Gold Rush.
SOMMER: The mine is back in the gold business.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
SOMMER: Hundreds of feet below ground inside a jagged tunnel, two miners drill into a solid face of rock. Matt Collins looks on. He's with Sutter Gold Mining, the company that's reopening this mine.
MATT COLLINS: This is a 135-pound drill. This one is muffled. It's a pneumatic drill.
SOMMER: Collins pulls a small sample of gold out of his pocket, about the size of button.
COLLINS: This is the first of what we hope will be many, many, many, many ounces of gold.
SOMMER: Almost $200 million of gold over the next five years. The company is just starting production in these narrow tunnels - tunnels that only get darker and narrower the deeper we go. The only light is from our head lamps.
COLLINS: Go ahead and turn your light off for a second and you can see how dark it really gets underground.
SOMMER: It's pitch black.
COLLINS: This is about as dark as it can get. Remember that when they first started mining in here, they would have been mining with candles.
SOMMER: We're inside the mother lode the most legendary gold deposit in the state. Mines here produced millions of ounces of gold up until World War II when the industry was suspended during the war effort.
COLLINS: After having let the mines flood, let the timbers rot, the neglect and the lack of maintenance, it became very expensive to reopen the mines.
SOMMER: But Collins says there's still plenty of gold here. And with gold prices around $1,700 an ounce, reopening old mines has become lucrative but not necessarily easy.
COLLINS: California is burdensome. I would say this is one of the toughest regulatory climates there is on the planet.
SOMMER: Those regulations come from mining's legacy of environmental damage in the state. Early miners processed gold with mercury, dumping millions of pounds of it into the watershed. Some fish still aren't safe to eat. Hard rock mines in California don't use mercury anymore, but that's not the case in other countries.
IZZY MARTIN: Gold mining around the world is heartbreaking to think about.
SOMMER: Izzy Martin is with the nonprofit Sierra Fund. She says toxic chemicals are common in places like South America.
MARTIN: There's no doubt that if we could open a mine in California that met our environmental quality act standards, it would be the cleanest, greenest gold in the world.
SOMMER: But that doesn't mean gold mining comes without environmental risks in California, she says. Some communities are still feeling the effects of recent mining.
KURT LORENZ: Oh, the well is - well, you see the end of the sports field right there.
SOMMER: Kurt Lorenz is walking across the blacktop at Grizzly Hill Elementary School in Nevada City. He was on the school board in the 1990s when the San Juan Ridge gold mine started up nearby. The miners accidentally hit groundwater and had to pump millions of gallons out of the mine as water flooded in.
LORENZ: My wells right around us here in the north Columbia area started to go dry.
SOMMER: In all, 14 neighborhood wells dried up. The mine paid for deeper wells and a water treatment plant, but Lorenz says the problems continued.
LORENZ: The school was told: You can't drink the water. The solution was that the mine started paying for bottled water to be delivered to the school.
SOMMER: The mine shut down after only a few years, but now, it's looking to reopen.
TIM CALLAWAY: I don't expect the community to take any significant risks, you know, for the benefit of my operation.
SOMMER: Tim Callaway is the 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 town, but...
CALLAWAY: What this project offers is really high-paying jobs. There are very, very few industries or jobs, you know, in rural communities.
SOMMER: Callaway says gold mining deserves a place in California. It's a legacy that his mine and several other proposed mines are hoping to continue. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer in Nevada City.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.