Originally posted in The Union newspaper March 21, 2014
By Keri Brenner
Empire Mine park for sale? State opens door to possibility if suitable buyer found.
A California State Senate subcommittee voted unanimously Thursday on a budget measure that includes a recommendation to consider selling off Empire Mine State Historic Park if a suitable buyer could be found. “Wait until everybody in this community finds out they’re thinking of selling it, not protecting it,” said Virginia Brunini of Grass Valley, one of the people involved in the state’s purchase property in the early 1970s and a board member of the Empire Mine Park Association. ‘It will be a real shock all over the state.”
The notion of selling off the 850 acres of forest land, mine buildings and historic properties that make up the park was part of a staff recommendation included in the subcommittee’s 3-0 vote to pay an almost $5 million bill for remediation costs in the continuing cleanup of toxic materials from the former mining operation. “It’s become too costly,” Brunini said.
The staff report, a copy of which was obtains by The Union, said that “staff can only anticipate that the state now has the obligation of about $5 million per year in perpetuity to run this state park. Staffing and administration alone cost the state $2.2 million.”
Earlier this year, the state Parks Department decided to scrap construction of an underground tourist tunnel in a simulated mine shaft after spending #3.5 million on the project. “The park has cost the state over $36 million over the past six years due to toxic runoff from the mining operation conducted (for) almost 50 years,” the staff report said. “This year’s budget includes another significant General Fund allocation to this park.”
Neither state Sen. Kim Nielsen nor state Sen. Ted Gaines, who overlap in representing Nevada County, could be reached for comment late Thursday. “I haven’t heard anything about it,” said Grass valley Mayor Dan Miller. “Until I get some type of verification on what exactly this is about, I can’t comment.”
Nevada County Supervisor Terry Lamphier, who represents Grass Valley, also could not be reached for comment late Thursday. “The exact staff language was to “recommend approval if the (budget) proposal in order to comply with permits and orders by regulatory agencies. Staff also recommends the department explore options to transfer or sell the property to a willing seller with the provision that the park remain in public hands,” the report continued. It was not immediately clear how any entity could purchase the park and still keep it in “public hands.”
According to the staff report, rulings filed in response to lawsuits about toxic deposits from mining were forcing the state to spend millions on cleanup. “The state has been in negotiations with the former owner over the cleanup since the orders were issued,” the staff report said. “However, according to the latest budget proposal mediation has stalled, while cleanup is still required.”
The state purchased the Empire Mine property in 1975 from the former Newmont Mining Corp., and turned it into a popular tourist stop and historical landmark. In the early 1970s, Brunini was administrative assistant to, and ran the districts offices for, US Rep. Bill Bagley, who represented Marin County until 1974. Earlier in her career, she had worked for a mining company in an administrative post. Brunini happened to see a notice that Newmont had put the mine up for sale, and told Bagley about it. In 1972, Bagley sent out a memo suggesting it would be a good idea to purchase the mine and turn it into a state park. In February 1973, the state assembly voted to purchase the park the appropriate $1.5 million from the Bagley Conservation Fund to the California Department of Parks and Recreation for the sale. The final purchase e price was not immediately available.
Bagley, contacted Thursday at his Marin County home, said the Conservation Fund came from an overlap in state withholding tax revenues. “They passed the withholding tax in 1971, but there were still collecting taxes from 1970 for three months,” Bagley said. “There was $500 million in double collection – that funded the mine.”