GRASS VALLEY – Gold mining lives on in this town – in the names of businesses, in various celebrations and in the tales of aging miners who gather each year. But its legacy also flows through a creek that’s been so contaminated by a mine it’s fenced off and posted with a sign that reads: “Avoid contact with water.”

These two competing legacies – mining’s romantic, prosperous history and its toxic leftovers – are at the center of a battle to reopen a historic gold mine that runs beneath Grass Valley in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

A Canadian mining company wants to take advantage of the skyrocketing price of gold, which topped $1,000 per ounce last month before dropping to about $900 last week, and plans to use a unique process that reduces waste – in part by turning the mine tailings into ceramic tiles.

The company, Emgold, has taken the old mining maps and records that it found in the basement of a former mine owner and used software to produce a digital record of the Idaho-Maryland Mine’s 72 miles of tunnels. Similar efforts are under way to revive old mines throughout the West. John Dobra, economics professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said new methods of mining make it easier to extract gold.

“Some places were mined so long ago with such inefficient methods that there’s lots of gold left in the tailings,” Dobra said.

But the proposal for Grass Valley’s Idaho-Maryland Mine is unique in one way: It’s the only mine he knows that’s located within city limits, Dobra said. The Idaho-Maryland and the Empire mines, both located in and around Grass Valley, were the two most productive gold mines in the state’s history.

Each operated for about 100 years, paying for the gabled mansions of their owners and the gingerbread Victorian homes of their top employees, as well as providing steady incomes for thousands of miners, many of whom emigrated from Britain’s mining region of Cornwall.

Both mines closed in 1956 because their owners no longer could make a profit.

In the early 1990s, another Canadian company got a permit to open the Idaho-Maryland Mine, but the price of gold dropped and the project wasn’t economical.

Many Grass Valley residents and civic leaders hope the revitalized mine will boost the local economy, which relies primarily on tourism.

“I think it’s a great idea. This town was built on mining,” said Robin Buckman, owner of the Old Town Cafe, which features historic photos of mining crews on its menu.

Mining is celebrated throughout Grass Valley.

The local high school’s athletic teams are called the Miners, several shops sell Cornish pasties – a traditional food of the miners – the town celebrates a Cornish Christmas each year and the history of mining is on full display at the Empire Mine State Historic Park.

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