Gold Mine Pits Jobs Against Environment The price of gold is shooting up and one modern-day miner has an ambitious plan to get to the ore still left in one of California's boomtown mines. But residents of that town, now a bucolic tourist draw, are wary of the environmental cost.
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Gold Mine Pits Jobs Against Environment

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Gold Mine Pits Jobs Against Environment

Gold Mine Pits Jobs Against Environment

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

(Soundbite of applause)

CHADWICK: The California gold rush is such history that in April the old mining town of Nevada City celebrated its 150th birthday with a warbly rendition of a just right Stephen Foster song, The Rush is Gone, the Beautiful Dreams Persist.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: This is a gold story and a good enough one to include both an old mine and hidden maps left by a dying miner to several pals.

Mr. ROSS Guenther (Geologist): One of them said, well, hey, I think my partner has some of the old maps in their basement.

CHADWICK: Ross Guenther, geologist, miner, protagonist for this story, or villain to some, but a man who belongs in gold country. The Sierra Nevada Mountains near Sacramento.

Mr. GUENTHER: I was able to piece together what had happened in the mine in the past and saw that there was over a million ounces in place right now. And plus as a geologist myself, and other geologists know that there's much more gold than that down there besides that million ounces.

CHADWICK: Hold that thought. One million ounces of gold left here when they closed the mine 50 years ago. The site is fenced. A couple of hundred woody acres, a large pond, an amazing six-story concrete silo that used to hold the ore as it came out of the ground. And, a very deep hole covered with a steel plate.

Mr. GUENTHER: We're now standing over a 3,280 foot shaft and if we sent you down through it, you'd go about 260 feet before you hit water and then it's water from there on down.

CHADWICK: Did you get that? There's 3000 feet of mineshaft flooded, more with all the side tunnels. Ross must pump out hundreds of millions of gallons even to begin exploring for more gold. That's a complication and one reason some people would prefer gold remain a fun historic tourist draw instead of a reborn industry. Carrie McNeil is one of those people.

Ms. CARRIE MCNEIL (Baykeeper, clean water group): Ok, so right now we're along a dirt road, there's no fence in between us and the creek right now, but there is a sign and it says, warning, aviso de peligro, the stream water may be hazardous.

CHADWICK: Carrie is with the clean water group, Baykeeper. We're in Grass Valley, the community next to Nevada City, where the mine is.

Ms. MCNEIL: And it says in English and Spanish not to wade, drink or eat the fish from the stream, and not to handle the sediment.

CHADWICK: Some of the water the feeds this neighborhood stream runs through enormous piles of waste from another old mine, the Empire, now a state park. Mine waste, called tailings, can contain metals like mercury, and chemicals that become dangerous if they're even exposed to air.

Ms. MCNEIL: There is a little note saying the State of California is working to clean up this stream, but at this time please avoid contact with the water.

CHADWICK: The streams and creeks here, Carrie notes, all drain to the Pacific Ocean. The mercury you hear about contaminating fish, some of it is from old gold mines. The Environmental Protection Agency says mining produces more dangerous waste than any other industry. So, people are anxious. And Ross Guenther knows that.

Mr. GUENTHER: Right now we're fortunate to be in a low arsenic zone. There's no detectable arsenic in the New Brunswick shaft down below us.

CHADWICK: He's actually been studying the rock here for about 30 years.

Mr. GUENTHER: The Empire mine, there's some elevated arsenic, but so we're in a low arsenic zone. We're also in a low sulfite zone. And the sulfite is what makes the acid that will leach out materials.

CHADWICK: Well, that's good, because sulfites in tailings are bad. And there are going to be a lot of tailings. One ton of ore is about a dozen cubic feet. So it would be about the size of maybe a filing cabinet, right?

Mr. GUENTHER: Roughly. Yeah.

CHADWICK: And in that filing cabinet would be one-quarter of an ounce of gold somewhere.

Mr. GUENTHER: Correct.

CHADWICK: That's what he's hoping to get, one-quarter of an ounce of gold in one ton of ore. So, the one million ounces of gold he plans to extract is going to mean at least four million tons of waste.

(Soundbite of geese)

CHADWICK: Geese roosting in the old silo above us, soar off the top and glide toward the pond. The place does look healthy. He's had the water in the mine tested. Ross says it's safe enough to drink. And he has a plan for the tailings. He's invented a process for turning them into ceramic tile. Of the 400 local jobs this mine would provide - and that's a lot here - half would come from the tailings.

This is the best place to go try to mine gold today?

Mr. GUENTHER: Yes.

CHADWICK: In the State of California?

Mr. GUENTHER: Yes. And then I've located the old-timers, the geologists and engineers who had worked on it, and went along with my ideas. And the maps themselves tell a - it's complicated, but they tell a very good story.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Mm. So much about gold is a good story.

Mr. GARY KURUTZ (Curator of Special Collections, California State Library): I'm Gary Kurutz, and I'm Curator of Special Collections for the California State Library in Sacramento.

CHADWICK: Nevada City invited him for its anniversary, and when he talks about the wild days of the gold rush, Gary likes to describe how it must have actually felt.

Mr. KURUTZ: People smoking, gambling, drinking, painted ladies - what an incredible, incredible environment that was.

CHADWICK: In some way, why we are, who we are, happened here. In this still new country, in California, you could become anything. It was wondrous. It was terrifying.

Mr. KURUTZ: You can leave your dingy New England factory, you can leave the farm in the Midwest. When you think that a skilled worker in New York - maybe a blacksmith, a cooper, somebody who really had a trade - would make a dollar a day. And then when you hear that you could perhaps make thousands of dollars a day in California, that was an enormous, irresistible magnet.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Mexico had claimed this region, we took it. The Indians we pushed off or killed. Elsewhere in the west, it took generations for territories to accumulate enough people and stature to gain statehood. It took the Golden State one year.

Mr. KURTZ: Men would bring in, you know, weeks and months worth of gold dust into these gambling saloons and think that luck would be on their sides. And some, too, lost everything. And there's one account where a man lost a year's worth of work, did not want to face his family, walked right in the Sacramento River. Nothing was heard from him again.

CHADWICK: Grass Valley has hired experts to conduct tests and analyze Ross' claims about the safety of the water and the tailings, but no one has yet devised a safeguard for one risk.

Mr. GUENTHER: Well, gold is kind of fickle. It goes up and down, then people lose the ability to raise funds, and that's why the other two went out.

CHADWICK: He means two earlier companies he created to try re-opening the mine more than a decade ago. They're gone. A big reason no one has re-opened the Idaho-Maryland already: the value of gold hasn't been worth it. And since we first heard of this story months ago, gold has been up and down hundreds of dollars an ounce, and that's another local worry. If the value goes down again, the town could be stuck paying for any problems.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: Yeah, right.

CHADWICK: I spent a Saturday afternoon in Grass Valley, sampling opinion at the semi-historical setting of a classic car show. With all its fond nostalgia, how much of its past does Grass Valley really want to re-embrace?

Mr. DON McCAY(ph): Yes, I'm Don McCay, and I've got family that goes back five generations here.

CHADWICK: So you must know about mining?

Mr. McCAY: Yes.

CHADWICK: A little bit?

Mr. McCAY: You know, I - if they can do it and not crash what we have here, I'm not against it, really. You know what we did to this land, and it was raped. If it ends up looking like an open pit or where there's mercury or anything else that could get into the environment, that's not a cool thing.

CHADWICK: The gold rush truly did change history. It remade this country, destroyed some communities, built others, poisoned rivers, made fortunes. Get ready Grass Valley, here comes your golden opportunity again.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: That piece was produced by Martha Little with engineering from Carlos Ascencio(ph). And see what it's like to descend into the old Idaho-Maryland mine. There's a photo plus a map of where to find Grass Valley in California's gold rush region. That's at our Web site, npr.org.

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