After four years of contentious debate and widespread local opposition, the community and river lovers are celebrating news that Nevada County has closed a pending application to reopen a controversial gold mine in the heart of the San Juan Ridge that threatened local water supplies and the health of the South Yuba River.
“SYRCL is delighted by the County’s closure of this application. When the mine last operated, it discharged millions of gallons of water—some of it untreated mine waste– into a tributary of the South Yuba River, scouring the creek bed down to bedrock, and endangering the habitat of yellow-legged frogs and other sensitive species. Mercury was historically used on the mining site and significant quantities may still be present and could re-enter local waterways via discharged water. By taking this action, the County is removing a substantial threat to the habitat of our beloved Yuba River watershed,” said SYRCL Executive Director Caleb Dardick.
The San Juan Mining Corporation (SMC) had applied to reopen the historic San Juan Mine on the San Juan Ridge in rural Nevada County in February 2012. Over the next four years, SMC had failed to meet the county’s stringent requirements for testing the impacts of the mine on local wells. While the Planning Department required SMC to collect a full year of water quality and quantity data, the mine operator abruptly halted monitoring after only six months.
“When the mine last operated in the 1990s, it dewatered 12 domestic wells and contaminated others including the wells for the North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center and Grizzly Hill School. It was a huge blow to the community,” said Barbara Getz, local business owner, longtime San Juan Ridge resident and SYRCL Board Vice President.
In a March 14, 2016 letter to SMC’s CEO Timothy Callaway, Nevada County Planning Department Planning Director, Brian Foss, informed the applicant, “The use permit and reclamation plan applications are now closed… If you wish to pursue the project in the future a new application will be required and new application fees and materials will be required to be submitted.”
Opposition to the mine was led by the San Juan Ridge Taxpayers Association (SJRTA) and the South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL). With California in the midst of a historic drought, many questioned whether the mine was the best use of the County’s scarce water. At its peak, it’s estimated the mine would have pumped up to 3.5 million gallons of water out of the ground every day –nearly one-third of the total daily groundwater use of all of Nevada County.
In February 2014, SJRTA and SYRCL delivered more than 1,300 signed postcards to Nevada County’s Board of Supervisors to voice the community’s concerns that the mine would threaten local water supplies and the health of the Yuba River. The postcards were collected during SYRCL’s 2014 Wild and Scenic Film Festival and stated “water is more precious than gold.” The featured image on the postcards was of the mythological King Midas, who wished for the ability to turn anything he touched into gold but regretted his decision after turning food, water and even his own daughter into the precious metal.
“After the stress and trauma experienced due to the impact on wells in the 1990s, the community has been staunchly opposed to the re-opening of this mine, and can now heave a sigh of relief. It’s been a long process and we’re pleased that community concern and good science was used by the County to help insure protection of our water supply. Our organization has been looking at economically viable alternative uses of the property that would fit in with the needs of the surrounding population, and, it is hoped, satisfy the property owners,” said SJRTA President Sol Henson.