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Sitting on a Gold Mine, Residents Fear for Their Water

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(Sacramento, CA)
Monday, January 7, 2013

Neighbors of the old mine are alarmed about the proposal  That's because about 17 years ago, miners hit a major water source and drained 14 nearby wells. 

People who live up on San Juan Ridge still vividly remember what happened. 

Shirley Paulus is one of about 2,000 people who live on the ridge.  She lives about half a mile from  the mine, and says she never though much about the it -- not until the mining crew hit a massive fissure, or deep crack in the bedrock,   underground.   

"We had heard wells going dry, done south here of the mine.  And we just heard another one went dry, another one went dry, the school went dry," says Paulus.  "And being as our well came in at better than 100 gallons a minute, we didn't think it would affect us."

But it did.  The crew struck the fissure in September of 1995.  Paulus says her son was home at the time their well went, "and he said when it came in, the ground shook and the water just burst out of it."

To understand what happened,  first you need to picture the mine: there's an ancient riverbed underground, filled in with gravel  -- that's where the gold is.  The miners tunnel underground, excavate this gravel and pump out water as they dig.  

But the miners hit a fissure in the underlying bedrock,  and water came gushing out, drastically lowering nearby water levels.

Fourteen wells went dry and had to be re-drilled.  Some, like Paulus's had to be re-drilled repeatedly to greater depths to reach water.  The new wells and filters were paid for by about $215,000 that Siskon Gold Corporation was required to set aside to deal with any potential water problems.

About 4 months after the incident, Siskon Gold was able to plug the gushing fissure with thick cement, and eventually water levels returned.


But some of the newly drilled wells were contaminated with significantly higher levels of iron, manganese, aluminum and zinc -- including the Ridge's Grizzly Hill Elementary School.

It's a mineral rich area, and there's no way to prove if contamination from the incident. But Kurt Lorenz, a former county planner says it's quite likely.  He says when the water dropped, it dried out wells and let oxygen in.

"The oxygen interacted with naturally-occurring minerals in the soil, and produced oxide.  So you've got rust, you've got aluminum oxide, you've got manganese-- and, it's the oxides  that become soluble in the water." 

So as the water table started to refill after the plug was installed in the mine, the water picked up all these oxides of minerals.  Students drank bottled water for more than 12 years after fissure break.

That's one reason the Grizzly Hill School board voted to oppose the reopening of the mine, says superintendent James Berardi.

"We're impacted probably greater than any entity, because we're so close to where this originally happened and the cost that we incurred is much greater than some of the private citizens," Berardi says.  "As a district and a school, we don't support this in any way."

But the San Juan Mining Corporation says it's not going to hit another fissure. 

Tim Callway was the head of Siskon Gold. He's now with San Juan Mining Corporation applying for a permit to reopen the mine.  He says the mine would create about 65 jobs with an average wage of $27 dollars an hour. 

And he says company hydrologists have developed a plan so they won't hit a major fissure this time.

"What we're going to do differently now, and what we would have done then had we any inkling that this could have happened, is to drill horizontal holes, in advance of ourselves in close spacing." 

This way, he says, if they hit any other cracks in the bedrock, "we could easily seal it off through a little 2-inch hole, and there would be no impact, it would be no issue. "

But even if the miners can prevent a major blowout, to mine this 1400-acre underground gravel bed operators still have to pump out all the water that's there.  According to the new mining plan submitted to the county, they may have to pump anywhere from 750-thousand to nearly 2 million gallons a day.

Gary Parsons is president of the San Juan Ridge Taxpayers Association, a group of more than 240 residents and families.

Standing down near the mine entrance, Parsons points to a tributary of Spring Creek.  He says the water pumping could still have big impacts on local people and ecosystems --- and streams like Spring Creek could be overwhelmed with excess water discharged downstream.


Parsons says to picture the underground gravel mine like a bowl of granola-- that's sitting in a kitchen sink filled with water.

"He sticks his straw down into the bottom of the bowl and starts sucking the milk out, it lowers the water for all the other chunks in bowl. The bowl is cracked, so the water surrounding the bowl actually starts weeping into the bowl, as the water level gets all the way down the bottom."

That means the mine could be pumping and draining water not just from the gravel, but from a huge surrounding area.

County planners estimate the environmental impact report will be completed by this summer. Then there will be a public comment period before the mine permit is approved or denied.


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