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What's old is new again

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billlascher | Dec 01, 2010 11:00 AM

Two stories about mining projects in California that crossed my path last week remind me that some narratives just don't seem to go away. Whether it's taking advantage of gold's record high prices or carving away at river-side hills for rock and stone, it seems a given that economic boons obscure questions about associated environmental effects that can harm local populations.

As he opened a Nov. 22 Sacramento Bee story on a new push for gold mines in California, reporter Dale Kasler wrote that “California is being left behind by the new Gold Rush.” As Kasler reports, a panoply of challenges, particularly environmental restrictions and the yuppification of Gold Country -- which roughly spans a stretch of California Route 49, the Mother Lode Highway -- are keeping mining companies from cashing in on hundreds of thousands of ounces of gold deposits. Since the metal is currently worth around $1,300 an ounce, that record high has brought gold fever back to the Golden State and the rest of the world.

Route 49 sign

California Route 49, in Downieville. Photo courtesy Bill Lascher.

Of course, even if this boom seems to have no sign of easing, there's still no guarantee it will last forever, as the American Public Media radio program Marketplace reported earlier this month. Still, responses to the news are being cast, as seemingly every story questioning new industrial operations or development in the West, as an economics vs. NIMBY debate. Indeed, even the conceit of the article, highlighting an ironic missed opportunity for the Golden State, reinforces this perceived dichotomy.A featured comment on the Bee story exemplifies the worry that Bay Area escapees who moved to Gold Country to snatch up cheap land are imposing their values on an area with an economy and history long shaped by mining. Such rural/urban tensions are common in the West. Indeed, this sort of rural gentrification does exist. I saw so last winter, when I traveled the length of Highway 49 during a move.

Storefront in Downieville

California Gold Country capitalizes on its history, but isn't ready for a new mining boom. Photo courtesy Bill Lascher.

What was also clear to me, though, was the very lasting impact of gold mining on the landscape. There is a visible, long-term impact of an extractive process even generations after an economic boom and bust. There are also lingering but less visible health impacts of the mercury used in mining operations in California and elsewhere in the West. Certainly, it's true that technologies have evolved since the time of the forty-niners (though the EPA is still working now to write regulations governing mercury emissions from gold mining), but the central question remains the same: What will the unforeseen consequences be?

Mining for other minerals raises similar questions about prioritizing immediate economic returns or long term quality of life and environmental health, even if the profits at stake are smaller and less speculative. One such category is rock mining, as the Ventura County Star reminded us on Nov. 24.

That story described how Larry Mosler, the owner of a rock mine near Southern California's Los Padres National Forest, appealed Ventura County Planning Commission findings that the mine violated more than a dozen of conditions on its permit. Two years ago, I reported on Mosler's mine for the Ventura County Reporter. I was struck how similar comments appeared in the Star article to the Bee article about gold mining. There is a persistent tendency to cast off any attempt to enforce permitting requirements as anti-business attitudes from people one commenter on the Star story called “greenies.”

Will anyone who stands up to question any economic activity on the basis of environmental and health concerns simply be dismissed as a NIMBY, a greenie, a whacko, or worse?

 Bill Lascher is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer. He focuses on the environment's intersection with science, business, culture and policy. 

He got the name for his Web site, Lascher at Large, from the legal column his father penned for 20 years before his death. Lascher is currently working on a project with his grandmother to tell the story of her cousin, Melville Jacoby, a foreign correspondent who died in the early days of World War II.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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