When we acquired the 500 acre Blue Point Mine property, the first decision we made was to close down the open pit gold-and-gravel mine which had been operating on and off on the site for about 150 years. Although the gold mine operation was both historic and at least potentially profitable – the bulk of the rich gold-bearing gravel on the site remains untouched – the environmental and aesthetic costs of open-pit mining were simply too great a price to pay.
It turned out that closing down a historic mine is nearly as difficult as continuing to operate one. California’s Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA) requires the owners of properties with existing mining operations to commit to restoring the land to its original, natural condition – or at the very least, the condition of the land in 1972, which was when SMARA was passed. The State Mining and Geology Board, which enforces SMARA, has some very persuasive ways of ‘encouraging’ compliance with its regulations, which include fines for non-compliance of $5,000 per day, which definitely got our attention. And besides which, the goal, of restoring some of the environmental values back to this besieged and beleaguered site, was a worthwhile one.
The First Challenge
The first challenge of doing a reclamation plan was to figure out what our objective would be – that is, to what state did we intend to restore the property? The goal of the large majority of reclamation plans is to restore a site to its pre-mining condition – which, in our case, would involve somehow rebuilding the half of Meade Hill which had been washed by the hydraulic cannons into the Yuba River. And besides, the cliffs and ponds and wetlands which have emerged in that landscape devastated by those early gold miners are not only dramatic and beautiful – to me they also told an important story, not only of man’s capacity for devastation but perhaps more significantly, of the planet’s innate capacity for healing and restoration.
So we knew that we couldn’t restore the site to its “natural” pre-mining condition, nor did we want to. On the other hand, doing the minimal required of us by state law – restoring the site to its 1972 condition, when the quarry was in full operation and the site was scraped bare of topsoil and pocked with excavations and drainages – seemed not worth the effort, and would do little to resolve some of the erosion and other environmental and aesthetic problems that afflicted the site.
We hatched a bold plan – to “resoil” the site, in effect covering over the hundred or so acres of bare gravel with a few hundred thousand cubic yards of brand new custom made topsoil, which could in turn support native grasses that hadn’t grown on the site since the first miners arrived, and that in turn could provide new habitat and forage for the area’s wildlife.
A Crazy Idea
It seemed like a crazy idea, but we had already had one of the major raw ingredients for topsoil on the site – a few hundred thousand yards of fine sand and gold dust, which had been stockpiled on the site throughout several generations of gold extraction. This would be the ‘filler’ for our topsoil – now all we needed was lots of organic material. We contacted the green waste recycling operation at the Nevada County landfill, which as it turned out had a lot of organic material which was being trucked to plants in the Central Valley where it was being burned to generate electricity – and a lot of carbon dioxide in the process. They were looking for a more environmentally friendly way to dispose of their surfeit of green waste, and we were looking for organic material. It was a perfect match.
For six weeks, the Nevada County landfill moved their green waste recycling program to the Blue Point Mine, setting up an enormous grinder which took 20 large truckloads of organic material per day and ground it all into fine wood chips. Our tractors then took the mountains of fine wood chips and mixed it with the piles of sand and gold dust to create a soil blend that we then spread across the rocky, bare expanses of Blue Point. Then the hydroseeders came in to “top off” our custom-blended soil surface with fertilizer, native grass seed and erosion-controlling mulch.
And then all we needed to do was wait for a little rainfall. That spring, the valley floor turned green for the first time in a 150 years. The inspector from the State Mining and Geology Board called it the finest reclamation effort he’d ever seen. The deer and birds we saw browsing the now-verdant landscape seemed to agree. And after all the insults and abuse that had been afflicted by the hand of man on this noble landscape, it felt an honor to assist, in some small way, in the healing process.