The last underground gold mine in the Sierra may finally win a round in the ongoing bout it's having with a state water agency.
The Original Sixteen to One Mine in Alleghany has been battling the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board for several years over the water it discharges into Kanaka Creek. The creek and mine are in Sierra County, just over the north Nevada County line and south of Downieville.
The mine has a permit to discharge into the creek but in March of 2002, the board issued a cease and desist order because of arsenic readings. The order said the mine must meet new federal drinking water quality standards for arsenic that go into force in March of 2005.
The new standards are 10 parts per billion, and last year the mine contended it found 13 parts per billion of background arsenic already in the creek without the mine's input.
That caused mine president Michael Miller to appeal the order Wednesday in Sacramento to the board's parent agency, the California State Water Resources Board. Miller expected to be ignored, but he received a pleasant surprise.
"The board held the decision over and authorized its staff to further investigate the situation," a pleased Miller said. "I was shocked ... The state board said, 'We're not here to be punitive, we're here to solve problems."'
"The mine put on an expert, Mr. (Bill) Walker," said state board counsel Tim Reagan. "He suggested the monitoring (for arsenic and other substances) was too much of a burden. The board directed staff to look at (Walker's) material to see if it has merit."
Walker is a geochemist from Sacramento who deals with mines. In his testimony, he told the board that metals and arsenic are associated with mineralization and ore bodies like those found in Sierra gold mines.
The fact that arsenic is in the water that flows out of the mine "is not surprising," Walker told The Union Thursday. "It's typically associated with gold course veins."
The arsenic in the water that flows out of the mine is a natural occurrence, Walker said, and not a result of mining. If it didn't come out of the mine, it would come out somewhere else.
Walker said the central valley board also wanted the mine to test for things "that simply don't occur" at the site, "like cyanide. It's never used" at the mine. Unlike other gold operations, "it doesn't occur naturally, why test for it?"
Walker said he closed two mines in the Sierra that belonged to the state and told the state board they had extreme high levels of arsenic flowing from them prior to the closures. That prompted him to tell the board "there's no consistency in your regulations" between state and private mines.
"We know we have arsenic coming into Kanaka Creek," Walker said. "We want the permit on the science and background of the area, not just some number they pull."
"This is not acid mine drainage," said mine shareholder Mike Clark on Friday. Clark accompanied Walker and Miller to the board hearing.
"This is a natural occurring element," Clark said. "There's 10 old mines up that creek and they're adding to it ... It's a remote mountain stream; nobody draws from it for drinking water."