Sanity required for the dispute over 16-to-1 Mine
Environmental regulators touched a live nerve when they went after the 16-to-1 Mine, the mine near Alleghany which is the only working, underground hard-rock mine in the state.
The mine is a beloved connection to the region’s past. Hundreds of people tour the 16-to-1 each year for a close understanding of the history of the Gold Country. But the mine is an important part of its present as well. It’s the largest private employer in Sierra County, and 19 families depend on its paychecks.
The substantial portion of the population that believes environmental regulation puts the environment first and people second were nodding their heads knowingly when the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board came after the mine.
The regulators demanded that the water which seeps from the mine into a nearby creek meet drinking-water standards for arsenic. The mine’s management says the creek already has so much arsenic that the mine can’t meet the standards even if the water that seeps from the 16-to-1 contains no arsenic.
In theory – and perhaps in practice – the state could shut down the mine.
The mine’s management, however, hasn’t helped the company’s position when it has essentially blown off the state for years. It hasn’t paid fines. For several years, it hasn’t conducted tests the state requires. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that neither the regulators nor the environmental community is in no mood to give the 16-to-1 a break.
Clearly, the sane approach is this: Get everyone calmed down and focused on the job of reducing arsenic pollution to some acceptable standard. Recognize the importance of the mine to the economy and culture of the Sierra and seek ways to keep it operating without an impossible regulatory burden.
Regulators’ willingness to work with the mine for the next three years is a good start – but the task is big. There won’t be much time for finger-pointing, political grandstanding or argument if the mine and the state want to get the job done right. And they must.
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