Revitalization of Mine-Impacted Lands: Due Diligence in the Sierra Nevada Gold Country

Increasing the pace and scale of mine remediation is vital to transform the toxic legacy of California’s 19th century Gold Rush from destruction into innovation and protection of Sierra Nevada headwaters. The Sierra Fund’s newest report, “Due Diligence in the Sierra Nevada Gold Country: New Tools to Remediate California’s Abandoned Mine Lands,” outlines a strategy to finally remediate California’s dangerous legacy mines so that headwater and downstream communities’ water, soil and air support healthy places to live, work, and thrive.

National and state leaders have recently called for increasing the pace and scale of mine remediation, but precisely how to do this has been unclear – until now. In this report The Sierra Fund describes how to transform the legacy of the Gold Rush from widespread pollution into economic innovation and restoration of the landscapes and communities of the Sierra Nevada – and indeed the entire state. Improved due diligence protocols as part of acquisition and development projects on abandoned mine lands is key to building market and public confidence to invest in these landscapes – and therefore increasing investment in abandoned mine remediation. Read the full report here!

In May of 2021, The Sierra Fund held an informative workshop series breaking down this new report, with several notable presenters including the Director of the Department of Conservation, David Shabazian, Andy Fristensky of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, Shelly Covert of the California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project, Alan Driscoll of Forsgren and Associates, and Willie Whittlesey of Yuba Water Agency. The workshop recordings are available here.

Why it Matters:

The lasting environmental, cultural, and health impacts of the California Gold Rush cannot be overestimated. Entire ecosystems were decimated in the hunt for gold. Forests were cut to timber the mines, fuel the stamp mills, and build the towns that were home to the gold and silver mines that straddled both sides of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Rivers were dammed, and hundreds of miles of ditches and canals were dug to convey water that was used to power hydraulic monitors. Toxic substances such as cyanide and mercury were used to process the gold and then left behind in the waterways, mine tunnels, and leach heaps. Hard rock mines tunneled hundreds of miles underground through rocks loaded with arsenic, asbestos, lead, and other carcinogens and neurotoxins that were brought to the surface, crushed, and distributed across the landscape. Cities sprang up, displacing Tribal communities in the headwaters, as immigrants from around the world flooded in to work in the mines and settle the towns.

When the price of gold fell in the early 20th century and the mines began to close, communities continued to grow on and around these sites of industry, many of which have never been remediated. The Gold Rush provided transformational benefit to the nation at large, at the expense of California’s indigenous Tribes and with lasting impacts to the state that persist to this day.

Today, residents and visitors to the forests and towns of California’s Gold Country can be unknowingly exposed to physical and chemical hazards while recreating or living on abandoned mine lands (AMLs) and overgrown forests which are conducive to wildfire, creating numerous threats to public health. The toxic metals discharged by legacy mines continue to flow downriver and deposit into the San Francisco Bay/Delta where water is diverted to serve farms and cities as far away as Fresno and Long Angeles.

The good news is that public funds are available to acquire, remediate, and revitalize AMLs, turning them back to vibrant public use!

Learn More:

Learn about Brownfield funding available for AML cleanup through U.S. EPA here and check out these additional resources for more information about AMLs: