Ben Mossman, CEO of Rise Gold Corporation, is hopeful.
At the helm of the Canadian company that wants to reopen the Idaho-Maryland Mine, Mossman awaits the results of an environmental impact report, expected in a month or two.
Others wait for the report as well, like Ralph Silberstein of the Community Environmental Advocates Foundation. Silberstein said he was part of the last team that interrupted the reopening of the mine — a four year-long community concern beginning in 2008.
Now, Silberstein said private and public stakeholders must hold Rise Gold Corp. accountable when it promises to deliver drinkable water — a promise it’s made — and in particular, investigate what primary and secondary drinking water standards mean.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, national primary drinking water regulations are legally enforceable standards applied to public water systems.
In contrast, secondary drinking water standards are “non-enforceable guidelines regulating contaminants that may cause cosmetic or aesthetic effects.” Cosmetic effects are detailed as affecting skin or teeth color, and aesthetic effects refer to water’s taste, odor, or color.
According to its website, the EPA recommends secondary standards, but does not require water systems to comply.
Silberstein said Rise Gold Corp.’s tentative promise to deliver “drinking water” to the people of Nevada County goes too far and contested the drinkability of water that meets the secondary standards altogether.
Mossman said if the Idaho-Maryland Mine is approved to reopen, it won’t operate like “your grandfather’s gold mine.”
“It’s perfect water quality that you could drink,” Mossman said of the water that would come from the mine and would be discharged into Wolf Creek. “The limited threat general discharge permit — which we would apply to release the water under — has a huge list of allowable metals and chemicals that have to be complied with.”
Mossman said California Water boards hold water to a higher standard than the EPA’s primary or secondary specifications. The boards ultimately determine whether to issue the limited threat general discharge permit required to open the mine.
“They’re even more stringent than the (EPA’s) drinking water standards,” Mossman said.
IS IT SAFE?
Mossman said the primary criteria for undrinkable water includes the presence of copper or arsenic.
“There’s a secondary list of elements that could leave rust stains on your plumbing fixtures, but they aren’t necessarily bad for you,” Mossman said.
There are no elements of concern — namely arsenic or mercury — in the shaft water, Mossman said. Some arsenic was found in sand tailings contained by a berm at the mine’s Centennial site, and clean up is taking place under the direction of the state’s Department of Toxic Substances.
Mossman said the existing water around the mine already meets primary drinking water standards, but the company’s hydrologist did find levels of manganese and iron elevated past those secondary standards.
Mossman said the groundwater oxygen level is poor, which causes the iron and manganese to dissolve and react with the surroundings, producing rust or an odor. Iron and manganese can cause pipes to rust and emit a distinct odor, but have no known detrimental impacts to human health.
Andy Kopania, a hydrologist hired by Rise Gold Corp., said the surface water discharge standards used in the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination permit are a chance to look at what naturally occurring minerals in the rock were dissolved into the ground water.
“The secondary drinking water standard refers to things that change the taste of water, but are not threatening to one’s health,” Kopania said. “It may make water have a musty odor.”
Kopania said though unpleasant, water containing these naturally occurring minerals is not bad for one’s health.
THE CLEANING PROCESS
According to Mossman, the processed water will, in fact, leave the mine in better condition than it entered.
Mossman said ammonia is used to treat water with elevated levels of arsenic. The mine will then use a granulated activated carbon as a secondary treatment. The water treatment plant affiliated with the mine will precipitate iron and manganese into a solid and remove it.
“(The equipment) is designed to remove anything else that may come up,” Mossman said. “It’s a pretty simple process used all over California.”
Mossman said mining does not require the use of chemicals the way a factory or wastewater treatment plant might.
“Just downstream is a sewage treatment plant and they’re treating toilet waste,” Mossman said. “That’s not a concern in a mine where no bacteria is introduced into the water.”
Few toxic substances have been found near the original mining site, and the mine never shut down because of poor working conditions or obvious environmental issues, Mossman said.
The mines were closed in 1942 by the United States government, Mossman said. Because the mine wasn’t being used to excavate materials that could be used on behalf of the war effort, like copper, it was forced to shut down.
Mossman said when the mine opened back up, the government had fixed the price of gold.
“After 1956, the mine was no longer economically viable,” Mossman said, adding that the closure was due to the fixed price of gold.
Mossman said his publicly traded company purchased the property in part to determine how much was left behind by early excavators.
Mossman said he is hopeful about the permitting process because of the Emperor Gold Corp.’s approval in 1995.
According to Rise Gold Corp.’s website, despite the permit’s approval, the mine didn’t reopen because of insufficient funding and “poor market conditions.”
Mossman said there’s an existing permit to discharge water into Wolf Creek.
“They have a general discharge permit already in place,” Mossman said. “You need a secondary permit to discharge water from California Regional Water Control Board.”
Mossman, who moved to the region three years ago, said the board’s standards are rigorous and trustworthy.
“Most mines through the country may not treat the water to this level,” Mossman said, adding that California has high standards for drinking water compared to other states.
Mossman said the mine was not that toxic in its first iteration because of the nearby elements.
“There are very little metals that leech from the rock that could create a water quality problem,” Mossman said.
“Because these are gold deposits in quartz veins, there are very little sulfides in the rock,” the hydrologist said. “The pyrite is removed from the material and then shipped off site and the sulfide minerals are removed — those are the minerals that cause environmental issues.”
Mossman said his company is awaiting approval of the use permit, which is contingent on the results of the environmental impact study, which will include water and air quality assessments.
The environmental impact report will be vetted by the county and is being conducted by a licensed hydrologist.
“We are well aware of environmental expectations of the county and the state,” Mossman said. “We researched all that before we bought the property and have designed the project to eliminate concerns like that.”
CEA’s Silberstein said the environmental impact report, which Mossman hopes will be complete in “one to two months,” requires a period of public comment and a consultant to answer those comments before it is presented to the county’s Planning Commission, and then the Board of Supervisors.
“The Planning Commission just makes a recommendation,“ Silberstein said. ”The Board of Supervisors votes to certify the EIR, which means they’ve accepted the EIR as being adequate.“
CEA also was involved in a lawsuit against Dorsey Marketplace, a mixed commercial-residential development project with over 100,00 square feet of retail space and 172 apartments. That suit sought a coherent and cohesive environmental impact report. A Nevada County Superior Court judge dismissed the case earlier this month.
Silberstein said the county does not have to approve the mine’s reopening, even if the EIR is certified.
“Whether they approve it is a second question,” Silberstein said. “It might bother the neighbors, hurt the economy or be bad zoning — they have that right.”
In the meantime, Silberstein said he is keeping his eyes out for “significant impacts” determined by the environmental report. If found, Silberstein said the county will need a good reason to override the report’s conclusions and reopen the mine.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at email@example.com