The fourth biennial Sierra Fund conference, focused on finding ways to reclaim and remediate mine-scarred lands in the Sierra, took place at the Sacramento State University on May 8th and 9th. The full slate of programming was kicked off by Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin, CEO of the Sierra Fund, who spoke about the grip that absentee landowners have over the land in the Sierra. The stage for a frank conversation about land-use and equity was further set by Lawrie Mott, a former scientist with the National Resources Defense Council, who begged the question: “Can our 20th Century water systems survive the 21st Century climate reality?”
The conference began with presentations from speakers with diverse backgrounds, including geologists, tribal members and government employees. Adrienne Alvord, a board member of the Sierra Fund and employee of the Union of Concerned Scientists, urged the attendees to visit their website to take action against the threats to both scientific funding and data in the wake of the proposed Presidential budget. The Director of the California Department of Conservation, David Bunn, gave a presentation geared towards increasing the stewardship of California’s natural resources over the next 100 years. He discussed the push that is being made to facilitate different aspects of planning while trying to manage the 40 million people that live in the state.
It is not possible to have a conversation about the Sierra Nevada without talking about the impact that dams have had on the natural landscape. Mathias Kondolf, a Geology professor at UC Berkeley, gave a presentation focused on the lifecycle and lifespan of dams not only in the Sierra, but also mentioning some of the largest dams in the world currently being built in China along the Yangtze and its tributaries. Dr. Kondolf was most interested in determining how quickly the reservoirs of dams might be filled; he mentioned that an increase in wildfires in the area would lead to an increase in sedimentation during large rain events, which in turn leads to faster filling rates of dam reservoirs. He also discussed the need for including the decommissioning costs of a dam upfront during the construction process, rather than allowing dams to sit idle for decades. Trina Cunningham, a tribe member of the Maidu, closed the morning session with a stirring song about the sacred waters of the Maidu. She then spoke about her mission to help increase the water equity of the Maidu tribe, who have been losing their river access along the Klamath River due to damming. Craig Tucker, a National Resources Policy Advocate who works with the Karuk tribe and studies migratory fish along the Klamath River, has been working with the Karuk tribe to remove the four dams along their stretch of the middle Klamath River. The Karuk still practice many of the same traditional fishing techniques that their ancestors used, but in recent years have been limited to harvesting as little as 200 salmon due to falling numbers in spawning fish.
The conference featured various technical presentations and policy panels. There are new and different ways that mines and mine-scarred landscapes are being remediated. Michael Schulz from REI Drilling Inc. gave a presentation about Horizontal Directional Drilling, a new technique that maximizes safety while minimizing surface and environmental impacts. When used in tandem with their water pumps, they are able to remove and then treat the contaminated water that often builds up inside of abandoned mines. Vic Claussen, a professor at UC Davis, spoke about the need for preventative actions instead of being stuck with large cleanup projects after a mine closes down. Preventative actions and planning are preferable because soil regeneration is a step-wise and lengthy process. Steve Lofholm was representing the company Golder Associates and spoke about a remediation project they have undertaken at Empire mine, the largest gold lode mine in California with 367 underground miles of tunnels. They are pumping water contaminated with iron, manganese and arsenic uphill into a series of three containment ponds. The water is treated for iron and arsenic into the first pond, which then feeds an aerobic wetland where the water is oxidized. The vegetation does develop a mineralic plaque, but manganese is removed through oxidation in the last pond as well. This process is able to remove 97% of the arsenic and 95% of the iron, while removing 77% of the total manganese from the system.
A variety of policy-oriented panels were formed to discuss some of the legislative background related to reclamation and remediation of mine-scarred lands. The Surface Mining and Reclamation Act Implementation Panel featured Pat Perez from the CA Department of Conservation, alongside Bill Craven with the Senate Natural Resources Committee and Mary Pitto with the Regional Council of Rural Communities. They discussed the implementation of a new amendment that created a position for State Mine Inspector, whose roles will include inspecting working and abandoned mine projects. A panel centered on the issues of Ethical Gold discussed whether it was possible to create an ethically and environmentally sound certification process that could bring gold that is produced during restoration processes to a niche consumer market.
Abandoned mines and scarred landscapes are commonplace in the Sierra Nevada, many of which exist within small communities or on tribal lands. The EPA’s Brownfields Program provides grants to these rural and tribal communities to help them assess and then remediate contaminated areas. Many tribal communities have found success in returning contaminated landscapes back to non-economic uses by creating “Tribal Response Programs.” Both the EPA and the Center for Creative Land Recycling offer technical assistance and expertise in addressing the remediation of brownfields in rural communities. The EPA conducts site visits and assessments to determine the redevelopment potential of sites in urban areas, but also evaluates the potential for remediation in rural communities that may not have access to large planning departments and less access to government resources. This idea of bridging the gap between the scientific communities and rural, tribal communities was driven home by Shelly Covert. She is the Tribal Secretary for the Nisenan and Executive Director of the California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project (CHIRP); she highlighted the need for government agencies and the scientific community to collaborate with traditional ecological knowledge in order to increase our ability to restore the Sierra to it’s natural state.
Written by William Hilton.
Photo Courtesy of Don Barrett, via Flickr.