Reclaiming the Sierra

Conference Brief: Improving Mine Reclamation in California

March 26, 2015

Reclaiming the Sierra 2015 Conference Track focuses on new opportunities to address California’s oldest environmental pollution

The history of mining regulation (or lack thereof) has shaped California’s landscapes and left lasting impacts on our waters and communities. The Policy and Coordination Track at Reclaiming the Sierra 2015, to be held April 20-21 in Sacramento, will focus on the challenges and opportunities associated with efforts to improve mine reclamation in California. Reclaiming the Sierra is The Sierra Fund’s third bi-annual conference.
 
Imagine a time when operators of gold mines could close up shop and walk away without a second thought to the physical and chemical hazards left behind, reaping full economic benefits while neglecting any responsibility for damages. Before the California Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA) was signed into law in 1975, this was the reality. Mines that ceased operation prior to 1976 were under no obligation to conduct reclamation activities.

Due to the absence of a regulatory mechanism for legacy mine reclamation, approximately 47,000 abandoned mines exist in California today, all of which present potential physical hazards and approximately 10% of which present chemical hazards. Thus far, reclamation of legacy mines has only occurred for those with the most highly visible impacts on the environment and public health.

The first of three conference workshops in this track, “Pre-SMARA Legacy Mine Remediation” will feature a panel of experts discussing the challenges and opportunities associated with cleaning up the thousands of legacy mines in California.  Challenges associated with reclaiming legacy mines include a regulatory structure that delegates various activities to multiple federal and state agencies, each with different priorities and assessment methods. Improving collaboration among regulatory agencies, including creating common standards for assessing and reclaiming abandoned mines and mine waste, will help coordinate and prioritize legacy mine reclamation.

Just as important is ensuring that funding is available for “shovel-ready” reclamation projects. Another conference workshop in this track “Water Bond Implementation Issues and Opportunities” will focus on the potential for legacy mine cleanup with funding in the newly-passed Proposition 1. Raising California’s gold and silver fees and targeting Proposition 1, the voter-approved Water Bond, could be a modest beginning in providing funds for legacy mines contributing mercury to the State’s watersheds.

While mining regulations improved after the passage of SMARA in 1975, currently operating mines pose similar yet distinct challenges. A third workshop in the conference track, “Post-SMARA Mine Permitting and Reclamation Issues” will feature speakers both from California regulatory agencies and communities permitting new mines. SMARA delegates regulatory and permitting functions to local land use agencies, mostly cities and counties, creating a diverse policy environment with differing procedures among regulatory agencies.

Research shows that SMARA is being inconsistently enforced by the cities and counties that serve as lead agencies. Some closed mines get away without reclaiming the land for beneficial use as outlined in the reclamation plan. Others fail to pay annual fees, creating a financial strain on the regulatory activities funded by these fees. Strengthening and improving the enforcement of SMARA by lead agencies is critical in regulating mining to ensure that no new environmental problems are created.

There is a real need to reform the existing policy framework to incentivize mine reclamation. Reclaiming the Sierra 2015 will work to coordinate and instigate all aspects of this issue, since addressing mine-scarred landscapes must bring all the funding, expertise and resources of each local, state and federal agency together with scientists and communities to create and implement a coordinated strategy for both remediating legacy mines and improving the enforcement of mining law on current mines.

The Sierra Fund has developed an issue paper entitled “Improving Incentives for Mine Lands Reclamation Activities” that frames the issue of legacy mines in California, and which is intended to provide a common understanding to participants in the conference workshops.

The full conference agenda and more information about the conference tracks, speakers, sponsors and tours can be found online at: www.reclaimingthesierra.org.


The Sierra Fund is a nonprofit community foundation dedicated to increasing investment in the natural resources and communities of the Sierra Nevada. In 2006 we launched our “Reclaiming the Sierra” Initiative to address the long term human health, environmental and cultural impacts of legacy mining in California. To learn more about The Sierra Fund, visit our website www.sierrafund.org.