A investigation by the Nevada County grand jury has found that contaminated water from old mines is getting into local streams, possibly compromising the health and welfare of some residents.
The report lists six local, county and state agencies — all of which are ostensibly responsible for monitoring this kind of environmental hazard — and all of which have reportedly failed to do so effectively.
“For over 30 years, there has been a lack of coordination and communication and a failure to accept responsibility by federal, state and local governmental agencies in efforts to monitor the water quality in some areas of Nevada County,” the report reads.
The grand jury’s inquiry focused on the Lava Cap Mine, the North Star Mine and the Empire Mine. Problems were found in each instance, with contaminated mine water entering the watershed.
With regard to the Lava Cap mine, it found that tailings and effluent had been released into the watershed in 1979 and again in 1997, but no remedial actions have occurred despite agreement between agencies that there was a need to take action.
At the Empire Mine State Historical Park, a discharge path known as the Magenta Drain carries mining effluent through an area frequented by families and children.
Fencing and other measures have been put in place to protect the public from that hazard, but the report claims that the appropriate permits from the city of Grass Valley or from the Building Department were apparently never issued.
The grand jury found that the North Star Mine site, which has been inactive for more than 50 years, continues to discharge contaminated water into Wolf Creek.
During storm conditions, the Drew Tunnel, a component of the North Star Mine Site, discharges as much as 400,000 gallons of contaminated water daily.
Lead, mercury and other contaminants from the North Star Mine are reportedly getting into the watershed upstream from the wastewater treatment plant, which is not designed to handle inorganic materials of this kind.
The Newmont Mining Corporation, which owns the site, is obligated to build its own wastewater treatment plant under the terms of a settlement agreement reached with Grass Valley.
But the grand jury report says that facility was supposed to be completed by February 2013 and that the city has failed to seek judicial relief in enforcing the settlement.
“I’m a little concerned with some of the accuracy of the information that the grand jury received,” said Tim Kiser, Grass Valley’s top engineer and director of the public works department.
“Our settlement does state that Newmont Mining should be providing a treatment plant by 2013, but it also provides that the deadline can be extended if the regional board fails to act or if there are environmental issues.
“I think the grand jury is looking at one line of the agreement and maybe not all the details,” Kiser said.
“Right now, Newmont has been pretty much in compliance with the agreement. I’m not sure what judicial relief they’re thinking the city could be seeking from our settlement agreement.”
The report cites a lack of communication or coordination, coupled with a failure to accept responsibility by state and local agencies. Moreover, the existence of those failures was known to the agencies involved, and they may have attempted to obfuscate that information, it says.
“There was internal acknowledgement of frequent failures by governmental agencies in these matters. Numerous efforts were made to conceal these failures from the public,” the report concludes.
These findings are mostly based on interviews with personnel from the City of Grass Valley and from the county, according to the report. The grand jury report also quotes statements of responsibility from the websites of the State Water Resources Control Board, the California Department of Toxic Substance Control and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Those statements of responsibility seem to be the basis for the grand jury’s conclusions about the failures of those agencies to effectively regulate water contamination from old mining sites.
Similar excerpts were used to implicate Nevada County’s Planning Department and the Department of Environmental Health.
Representatives from the State Department of Water Resources’ Regional Water Quality Control Board, the State Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Department of Fish and Wildlife all responded to calls before deadline, stating they were still in the process of reviewing the grand jury’s report.
Brian Foss, from the Nevada County Planning Department, made a similar statement.
The grand jury recommends that to remediate these issues, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors should meet with the agencies listed above to develop and implement a written agreement defining each agency’s responsibilities in safeguarding Nevada County’s water quality.
The report recommends that the supervisors direct Steve DeCamp, director of the Community Development Agency, to implement policies and procedures for periodic testing of surface and groundwater at the locations identified in the report. It also advises that the agency revisit the Lava Cap Mine incidents in 1979 and 1997, ensuring appropriate cleanup and enforcing a “Clean Up and Abatement Order,” which has already been issued.
As for the city of Grass Valley, the grand jury’s recommendations involve implementing a legal strategy to ensure adherence of the Newmont Mining Corporation to the settlement agreement with the city, while taking immediate steps to protect the public from toxins associated with the Magenta Drain in Memorial Park.
Readers can find the full report at the Nevada County Superior Court’s website or at The Union’s website.
To contact Staff Writer Dave Brooksher, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4230.