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Pandemic response, economic relief focus for new year

With 2020 in the past and a new year upon us, Nevada County leaders outline their focus for 2021, and what they see as the new year’s biggest challenges and opportunities.

VACCINE ROLLOUT

A plastic bag containing the first COVID-19 vaccinations are brought into a room of Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital in late December for inoculations of various hospital staff.
Elias Funez

Just as the COVID-19 pandemic monopolized most of 2020, the rollout of a vaccine and the hope of a return to normalcy it brings will largely be the focus of 2021.



“Our priority will be to continue to protect the community and rebuild the economy and we’ll be working with our community partners to make sure we have safe and equitable vaccine distribution,” Board of Supervisors Chair Heidi Hall said. “We’re not sure yet what that looks like, but I know staff is working on that and taking direction from what the state is planning and then going from there.”

The county hopes to have a local vaccine rollout plan approved by the state this month, with the state public health department’s Community Vaccine Advisory Committee meeting next week to discuss recommendations for the second and third tier of distribution.



The latest estimates show Nevada County has received 1,875 of 2,850 allocated doses, which have gone to health care workers in its two hospitals. Just under 1.5 million doses have been distributed in California, fewer than 300,000 of which have been administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationwide, 12.5 million doses have been distributed and under 3 million administered.

Despite the distribution lagging behind initial estimates and a new, more contagious coronavirus strain now found in California, the prospect of widespread vaccine distribution has people hopeful that more than inoculation, it will bring the beginning of economic relief.

“The health and safety of our public and the vitality of our businesses have always been inextricably connected, despite people who are trying to say it’s only one or the other,” Hall said. “If we can keep the community safe, we can open businesses.”

With the uncertainty of the vaccine administration comes concerns about whether mass inoculation will have a chance to set in before “COVID fatigue.”

“I think people are just so tired of having to do one thing then having to go back, and then do it again, that they’re done with it,” Board Supervisor Dan Miller said.

“We’re going to be debating (business restrictions) for a number of months, simply because no one has a clear direction and the direction seems to change.”

ECONOMIC RELIEF

Vehicles lined up for food from the Food Bank of Nevada County’s distribution held at Seventh-day Adventist Church in Grass Valley. Thousands of people have been helped with food assistance this year, up from previous years.
Elias Funez

Very few people in Nevada County have escaped 2020 without suffering some kind of major upheaval, and workers, small business owners and nonprofit organizations are looking to the new year for a rebound.

Food and housing insecurity remain a major issue, with aid programs and eviction moratoriums set to lapse.

Local nonprofits like Gold Country Senior Services and the Food Bank of Nevada County, which expanded last year to meet the still-growing demands, will look to increase their presence and fundraising goals.

“We’re probably going to be looking for more funding to buy more food next year, that’s something that we’re budgeting for right now,” Food Bank board president Doug Fleming said.

“This is the first year we’ve really had to go out and purchase food. We’ve always been able to work with community donations, our strategic partners and the USDA through the Department of Social Services.“

Fleming said after serving close to 90,000 residents over the course of the pandemic, more than 67,000 of which were first time visitors this year, the organization is planning for a signature summer fundraising event.

Both organizations are hoping to increase the frequency of their food delivery service next year and increase service to areas like Penn Valley and South County.

“Designing and renovating the senior center will be an area of focus in 2021,” added Janeth Marroletti, Gold Country executive director. “We are very concerned with the health and mental wellness of homebound seniors.”

MINE REOPENING PROPOSAL

Rise Gold CEO Benjamin Mossman holds a section of core sample containing chunks of gold. The sample was taken during exploratory drilling last year from a section of Union Hill Mine off East Bennett Road. The company is moving forward with plans to reopen the Idaho-Maryland mine.
Elias Funez

A draft environmental impact report outlining the effects of Rise Gold Corp’s proposed reopening of the Idaho-Maryland mine is expected to be available this spring.

Recent board meetings have seen a steady stream of citizens concerned about the mine’s potential impact, imploring the supervisors to oppose the reopening at each meeting. Activists from Community Environmental Advocates Foundation are hoping to turn that grassroots concern into an effort to keep the mine closed.

“There was actually a lot of different social platforms spontaneously reacting to this mine proposal that are independent of us,” said CEA Foundation president Ralph Silberstein.

“We have a lot of people coming out of the woodwork who are just really bothered by this project and we’re really hoping that the Board of Supervisors recognizes how impactful it will be, and makes a good decision in the future when they have to actually decide on this.”

Silberstein said he’s concerned the impact of the mine, particularly on ground water levels, could be more severe than Rise Gold is anticipating. Others are worried about Rise Gold CEO Ben Mossman’s past environmental record.

In 2018, Mossman was fined by the Provincial Court of British Columbia, Canada, for one violation of the Environmental Management Act and of one violation of the Fisheries Act. The fines were $7,500 each.

According to a release from the Canadian Environment and Climate Change office, in 2015 as CEO of mining company Banks Island Gold Limited, Mossman failed to notify regulatory officials about discharge of mine effluent into two fish-bearing bodies of water.

According to Mossman, the discharge was an isolated incident, the result of “a bypassing of a settling sump” meant to contain any sediments or debris.

“The Idaho-Maryland mine design incorporates containment, recirculation, and water treatment. All water pumped from the Idaho-Maryland mine would first go to the clay lined pond and then into the water treatment plant,” Mossman previously said in an email. “Water discharge from the water treatment plant would be very clean water and heavily monitored by employees and state regulators.”

The CEA Foundation has launched a site around it’s Idaho-Maryland mine activism.

“Our focus is trying to keep everything factually correct and keep trying to provide as accurate information as we can to the public,” Silberstein said. “I think that’s the key.”

PUBLIC SAFETY POWER SHUT-OFFS AND WILDFIRE ISSUES

The Independence Trail’s wooden flume structure succumbs to the Jones Fire as seen from Highway 49 the night of Aug. 17. Community efforts to rebuild the trail have already begun.
Elias Funez

Fire safety efforts are an annual imperative in Nevada County. The increased frequency of wildfires has only made vegetation management more of a life-or-death matter.

And while PG&E Public Safety Power Shut-offs are meant to reduce the risk of fire from its power lines, most businesses that have survived 2020 cannot afford to be without power.

“The board priorities of preparing for wildfires and PSPSs are going to continue as they need to,” Hall said. “We’ll continue to prepare for those as well as doing everything and anything we can to keep doing more vegetation clearing.“

County residents will await the continued progress of the Ponderosa West Grass Valley Defense Zone, which last year exceeding expectations by abating 750 of its 1,200 wildfire prone acres. The next steps in Phase Two of the project will extend the fuel break to Rough and Ready Highway and between Alta Sierra and Lake of the Pines.

With FAIR plan rates set to increase again this year, increasing the availability and reducing the cost of homeowner insurance will also be a priority.

“We’ll be working on trying to deal with regulatory and insurance issues, so we’re already beginning to look at what we’re going to be trying to change there to make it easier to get insurance,“ Hall said.

To contact Staff Writer John Orona, email jorona@theunion.com or call 530-477-4229.


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