Last week’s vote by a state Senate subcommittee to consider unloading Empire Mine State Historic Park is an illustration of how corporations can evade the consequences of their actions.
The state has spent $36 million over the last six years to cleanup toxic runoff from the mining operation, and has budgeted another $5 million for the fiscal year starting July 1. The state acquired western Nevada County’s main tourist attraction in the ’70s, more than 20 years after mining operations ceased.
Newmont and its predecessors used cyanide and mercury to extract gold from the ore–an estimated 175 tons of gold over 106 years–but in the process released heavy metals such as arsenic into the water and soil.
Little was done about the problem until environmental group Deltakeeper sued Newmont and the state parks department in 2004. To settle the suit, Newmont agreed to build a state-of-the-art natural filtration system known as the Magenta Drain to rid the water of heavy metals.
Waste water from the Magenta Drain found its way into Grass Valley’s water treatment facility–400,000 gallons a day, nearly one-fourth of the plant’s total flow. This triggered violations that incurred the wrath of state water regulators, so the city sued Newmont.
In a 2009 settlement, the company agreed to built its own water treatment plant no later than February of last year. Newmont now says the facility will be built this summer. Meanwhile, it has paid the city $1.2 million as compensation for spills and fines its mine water has helped cause.
The Magenta Drain cost $2 million and the cost of a new water treatment facility is unknown, but the total is unlikely to match the money taxpayers have spent to cleanup the mess at Empire Mine.
The state sued Newmont in 2012 to recoup costs associated with the cleanup of the site, an action that could take years to resolve. Newmont is a multi-billion company with mining operation on four continents, and can string out this process indefinitely.
Meanwhile, Nevada County is stuck with a toxic waste site the state may walk away from.