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A fortune was unearthed at this California gold mine. Now it may reopen

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Leroy N. Soetoro

Dec 18, 2023, 3:43:28 PM12/18/23

In California’s long affair with gold, the 160-year-old Idaho-Maryland
Mine stands as one of the great mother lodes.

From the 1860s to 1956, its 73 miles of tunnels, an hour north of where
the discovery of gold kicked off the historic rush of Forty-Niners,
bustled on and off with rickety mine cars and workers in hard hats.

During its run, the mine unearthed some of the largest underground
treasure California has seen. In total, more than $4 billion worth of
gold, by today’s prices, was pried from the site, near Grass Valley in
Nevada County.

Next week, Nevada County officials are scheduled to decide whether the
rights to mine gold at the complex are still valid. The verdict will
determine whether a mining company headquartered in Vancouver, British
Columbia, can proceed with plans to reopen the storied facility and revive
a rich but controversial piece of California’s past. Company
representatives believe one of the world’s highest-grade gold reserves
remains nestled underground.

While some wax nostalgic for the region’s Gold Rush, many in the area
don’t want to see the now quiet Sierra foothills 60 miles northeast of
Sacramento return to their industrial heyday. Plans by Rise Gold Corp. and
its local subsidiary call for up to 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week
drilling and rock processing at the eastern edge of Grass Valley, which
today is popular with retirees, Bay Area transplants and tourists.

“They’re talking about putting the mine in the middle of a residential
area,” said Ralph Silberstein, a Grass Valley resident and president of
the Community Environmental Advocates Foundation, which promotes
sustainability in the county and has organized a campaign against the
mine. “It has too many impacts.”

Map showing Idaho-Maryland mine in Grass Valley California
Could the Idaho-Maryland mine reopen?

A mining company is seeking approval to reopen the more than 150-year-old
Idaho-Maryland mine in Nevada County. This map from 2021 shows the
boundaries of the mine.

Chart: John Blanchard / The Chronicle • Source: Rise Gold Corp.

Beyond noise, another concern is environmental harm. Even as the
commercial pursuit of precious metal has largely ceased in Gold Country,
iron and sulfuric acid from mining in previous centuries still pollute
creeks, and arsenic from blasting is pervasive in soil. Some also worry
that if the mining tunnels are dewatered, the water table could drop and
cause nearby wells to go dry.

Representatives of Rise Gold, which began acquiring property and mineral
rights in the area in 2017, have been working to assure the community that
modern mining is different, and much less destructive, than in the past.

“We aren’t reproducing the same type of operation that existed before,”
Joe Mullin, president and CEO of Rise Gold, told the Chronicle.

Drilling would take place hundreds, if not thousands, of feet below the
surface and be virtually unnoticeable, according to the environmental
documents prepared for the county. Most of the noise from aboveground
activities would fall within the county’s noise standards, the documents
suggest. Also, today’s mining laws are much more restrictive in terms of

Mullin said the operation would yield more than 300 full-time jobs, with
pay in excess of $140,000, including benefits, and produce more property
tax than any other business in the county.

The company’s interest in reopening the Idaho-Maryland Mine was prompted
by recent exploration efforts at the site, which revealed lucrative
deposits of gold, potentially worth billions, employees say. The fact that
tunnels have already been built, they say, gives the company a leg up at
getting at the anticipated fortune.

Still, extracting gold from within the earth remains a difficult and
expensive endeavor, mining experts say. The handful of gold operations
that still exist in California are mostly pit mines, where the valuable
metal is plucked out near the surface.

Whether Rise Gold can move forward with its plan to reopen the tunnels
hinges on the company’s bid to prove vested mining rights.

Vested rights are generally exercised to ensure a property owner can
continue a certain activity when authorities restrict that activity at a
later date. Proving the right often involves showing the activity has
continued since it was regulated.

Company officials have petitioned the Nevada County Board of Supervisors
to confirm vested rights for the mine, which would allow mining to resume
without the rigorous county approval process.

Rise Gold has asserted that even if mining hasn’t continued since the
county required a use permit, the “intent” to mine was never abandoned,
which the company says preserves the vested right.

“Not only was there no intent to abandon the right by us or the previous
owners, but there were efforts to reactivate the mine,” Mullin said.

County planning officials, however, say the argument falls short.

An electric trolley is seen in this historical photo from the Idaho-
Maryland Mine in Grass Valley (Nevada County).

Searls Library, Nevada City
In a report issued last week, county staff concluded that the vested
rights expired as early as 1956, when mining ceased on the property and
the equipment was liquidated. The site has since had other owners with
different pursuits, such as timber production.

The Nevada County Board of Supervisors, though, reserves final say on the
matter, and a public hearing on the vested rights is set for next

Even if the company’s petition is denied, the pursuit of mining is not

Rise Gold is already knee-deep in motions to try to get permitted by the
county for new mining activity, a process that was put on hold when the
company instead sought to exercise vested rights. The permitting process
got less encouraging for Rise Gold, though, when the county’s Planning
Commission recommended that the Board of Supervisors not give the go-

Opponents have vowed to fight the project, no matter what route Rise Gold
takes to reopen the mine.

“Our organization exists, our job exists today to deal with the damage of
the last Gold Rush,” said Aaron Zettler-Mann, executive director of the
South Yuba River Citizens League, a community group that seeks to restore
and protect the region’s environment. “The idea that we’d start again …
it’s hard to get your head around.”

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