What began as an effort to prevent desecration of Native American sacred sites morphed this spring into a profound change in California's mining regulations, a change potentially so costly to mine operators that industry representatives predicted it would bring an end to one of the state's signature commercial activities: Gold mining.
But a closer examination of industry projections suggests that gold mining is already on its way out as a large-scale commercial activity in California, a development with great symbolic importance but few practical implications for the state's economy. The regulatory changes put into place in April may hasten that trend, but they did not set it in motion.
California has long had a conflicted relationship with the precious metal responsible for its abrupt vault into statehood more than 150 years ago. Gold's lure and luster transformed this sleepy provincial outpost almost overnight into an urban power, fueling a tide of immigration and creating vast wealth.
Almost as quickly, the quest for California gold began to visit ruin upon the state's other great assets: water, forests and farmland. In the early days of the gold rush, the destructive environmental effects of mining were localized and on a small scale. But when miners had taken all of the easily found gold, they turned to large-scale industrial operations to get at gold buried in vast deposits of sand and gravel laid down by ancient rivers. In particular, they began using high-pressure blasts of water from giant brass nozzles to wash away entire hillsides.
Nearly unimaginable quantities of debris washed downstream from the Sierra Nevada hydraulic mines, choking rivers and burying farmland. The Sacramento River rose seven feet in elevation as its bed was inundated with sand and silt. More than a billion cubic yards of tailings washed into San Francisco Bay, impeding navigation and turning the ocean brown at the Golden Gate. Altogether, Gold Rush-era miners picked up and moved about 5.6 billion cubic yards of California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Gold miners are still picking up and moving vast amounts of California, but the technology has changed considerably. Since the 1950s, the state's gold production has been derived primarily from giant open-pit operations in the Mojave Desert, where vast amounts of rock containing minuscule amounts of the precious metal are excavated, pulverized and bathed in cyanide. As the cyanide leaches through heaps of gold-bearing ore, the cyanide collects the precious metal, which is later extracted from the liquid solution.
Because it takes 20 tons or more of this low-grade ore to produce an ounce of gold, the holes produced by open-pit mining are substantial. A project proposed by Glamis Gold Ltd. in southeastern Imperial County would, for example, be 800 feet deep and a mile wide, and spread over more than 1,500 acres.
The Glamis project is the main reason for the new regulations. The mine on the federally owned Fort Yuma reservation would occupy a site sacred to the Quechan Indian Nation. Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt denied the company's permit application in January 2001 because of effects on the tribe's cultural resources, but the decision was reversed by his successor, Gale Norton, nine months later.
Outraged tribal representatives persuaded lawmakers earlier this year to approve SB22 by Sen. Byron Sher, (D-Palo Alto). Signed April 7 by Gov. Gray Davis, the law requires that open-pit mines on Native American sacred lands be filled back in after they close and the landscape restored to its natural contours. The added expense rendered the proposed Glamis project unprofitable, according to the company.
On April 10, Davis' appointees to the State Mining and Geology Board (SMGB) adopted regulations extending the SB22 reclamation requirements to all new open-pit metallic mines in California. Although state law long has required mine operators to submit post-closure reclamation plans with their permit applications, that reclamation generally consisted of revegetation and steps to prevent the mine from harming air and water quality. Filling up the holes, although an option, was not usually required, said John Parrish, the SMGB's executive officer. Mining companies externalized that cost, he said, leaving such restoration up to the public, if it was performed at all.
In the May issue of its newsletter, the California Mining Association (CMA) quoted industry representatives who were furious with the new regulations.
"We will not dig another hole," said Richard De Voto, president of Canyon Resources, which operates a mining operation in the Panamint Valley. With millions of dollars and 14 years already invested in that project, he said, the company is considering a lawsuit on the grounds that its property has been devalued.
"In the end the losers are not just the miners but the people of California," said CMA Manager Adam Harper. "Mining in California is practiced under the strictest of environmental rules and procedures in the world. Effectively banning the activity will only mean that the resources will get produced outside the state and possibly the country, continuing the process of exporting the high-paying jobs that are needed in America."
Mining opponents had a different take.
"The passage of the regulations indicates that California is serious about protecting the people of California from the environmental harm that can be caused by inadequately reclaimed open pit mines, protecting the irreplaceable sacred places of California Indians," Mike Jackson, president of the Quechan Indian Nation, said in a tribal press release.
Parrish said the new regulations may, indeed, make new open pit mines unprofitable "at today's prices and today's technology." But if the price of gold rises from its current level of around $350 an ounce, or if the cost of production falls, the equation will change and mining companies again will be willing to dig, Parrish said.
Even before the new regulations, however, California gold mining was a dying industry. According to the California Geological Survey's most recent report on nonfuel mineral production in the state, gold production declined 19% from 2000 to 2001, and is expected to drop by about 70% over the next two to three years.
Gold accounts for only $122 million of the state's $3.3 billion in annual nonfuel mineral production, dwarfed by unglamorous products such as construction sand and gravel (($953 million) and Portland cement ($768 million). California may never be known as the Concrete State, but its future appears less golden than its past.
John Parrish, State Mining and Geology Board, (916) 322-1982.
Adam Harper, California Mining Association, (916) 447-1977.
Mike Jackson, Quechan Nation, (760) 572-0213.
California Geological Survey: www.consrv.ca.gov/CGS/index.htm