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March 28, 2014
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Anyone want to buy a state park?

So a California Senate subcommittee suggests it’s time for the State Parks department to look into selling off Empire Mine State Historic Park, due to a $5 million annual expenditure that includes remediation efforts due to toxic run-off from the mining operation last conducted more than 50 years ago.

Imagine the sales pitch a real estate agent would need to come up with for a prospective buyer.

According to the subcommittee’s staff report, Empire Mine state park has cost the state $36 million over the past six years. But what portion of the cost actually relates to the remediation efforts remains to be seen.

“I can’t really talk about that because it’s part of the litigation,” State Parks Deputy Director of Public Affairs Vicky Waters said Friday. “I can’t really talk about how the remediation costs break down.”

That “ongoing” litigation stems from a lawsuit filed by the state of California against Newmont Mining Corporation in July 2012. Filed by California Attorney General Kamala Harris, the suit states Newmont “owned and continued to have an interest in Empire Mine Park where they conducted mining operations, which have generated and continue to generate real hazardous substances.”

The Empire Mine — one of the richest gold mines in California — closed in the mid-1950s after producing 175 tons of gold over a period of 106 years. The state bought the Empire Mine property from Newmont Mining Corporation in 1975, turning the historical landmark into a popular tourist attraction in the gold country.

From 1986 to 1989, more than 46,000 tons of contaminated sediment was removed from the area. After filing a lawsuit in 2004, the environmental group DeltaKeeper reached a compromise with state parks and Newmont Mining Corporation to clean up the area with the Magenta Drain remediation project. Newmont and the parks department remain embroiled in a lawsuit over who should pay costs relating to the Magenta Drain filtration device, which is designed to remove heavy metals like arsenic and manganese from the siphoning water.

“The case of Empire Mine is cause for continued frustration over the state of the State Parks budget,” the Senate subcommittee staff report states. “In terms of the annual budget, little progress has been made in efforts to reduce the cost of this to state parks. The arguments that the department is ‘close to settlement’ or ‘close to an agreement’ with the responsible parties have been (made) consistently and yearly since 2009. Staff can only anticipate that the state now has the ongoing obligation of about $5 million per year in perpetuity to run this state park. Staffing and administration alone cost the state $2.2 million.”

In response to Gov. Brown’s request for an additional $4.95 million from the general fund for “continued evaluation, analysis and implementation of remedial actions at Empire Mine State Historic Park” in 2014-15, the subcommittee staff recommended “the department explore options to transfer or sell the property to a willing seller with the proviso that the park remain in public hands.”

Considering that at this point the concept of selling Empire Mine is only a recommendation — one approved by a 3-0 vote by members of the Senate subcommittee — the State Parks department is not ready to comment on such a concept.

“We really don’t have a position on the staff’s recommendation,” Waters said. “It came from the Legislature because it’s from a Senate budget committee. So it would have to come through the Assembly and the floor, so we don’t have a (position) at this point of time.”

Staff for Assemblyman Brian Dahle, who represents Grass Valley, said Friday he is opposed to selling the state park and that the assemblyman met with State Parks and Resources Agency staff this week to discuss the issue.

“We have made keeping state parks open a priority in our office,” Josh Cook, Dahle’s chief of staff, said Friday. “The assemblyman has personally visited Malakoff, Empire Mine and the Bridgeport Bridge to emphasize his commitment to state parks in Nevada County. He even brought other members of the Legislature to Nevada County to build a bipartisan coalition to protect our parks, which play a vital role in the economic well being of Nevada County.

“Selling the park is not the answer, and the no one (in) their right mind would buy an asset that is being sold because it costs too much to maintain and mitigate the toxic materials.”

Neither of Nevada County’s two state senators, Ted Gaines and Jim Nielsen — who both represent the area through 2014 due to redistricting — could be reached for comment about the subcommittee recommendation.

We find that particularly troubling with Nielsen, considering the senator was one of the three votes that approved the recommendation as a member of Subcommittee No. 2 — along with Chair Jim Beall and Hannah-Beth Jackson.

Nielsen apparently also didn’t share his thoughts with local elected officials in Nevada County, as some have said they were caught off guard by the news first reported in The Union last week.

Nielsen shared good news for Nevada County earlier this week in a press release, touting the same committee meeting resulted in the release of $318,000 in federal funding to begin the restoration of the Bridgeport Bridge.

“California’s Gold Rush was a significant part of our history that must be preserved, so future generations can learn and enjoy the past,” Nielsen said in the prepared statement. “The Bridgeport Covered Bridge is a pivotal part of our history and has been closed for too long.” We agree.

But it seems odd the senator didn’t bother to share his perspective on the other news on Nevada County state parks that came out of that same meeting with his western county constituents or elected officials who represent them, considering Empire Mine was also a pivotal part of California history as one of the richest Gold Rush mines — and a continued economic resource for Nevada County tourism today.

“We understand the frustration inside the agency of having to spend so much on maintenance and toxic material mitigation,” said Cook, Dahle’s chief of staff. “That said, we believe selling the park is an ill-conceived idea and we look forward to working with state parks to find a better solution.”

And again, we agree.


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The Union Updated Apr 4, 2014 11:25PM Published Apr 4, 2014 11:59AM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.