Stream of molten gold signals return of large-scale underground mining to Calif.’s Mother Lode – by Don Thomspson (Associated Press/Victoria Times Colonist – December 17, 2012)

SUTTER CREEK, Calif. – The gold miners who made California famous were the rugged loners trying to shake nuggets loose from streams or hillsides. The ones who made the state rich were those who worked for big mining companies that blasted gold from an underground world of dust and darkness.

The last of the state’s great mines closed because mining gold proved unprofitable after World War II. But with the price of the metal near historic highs, hovering around $1,700 an ounce (28 grams), the California Mother Lode’s first large-scale hard rock gold mining operation in a half-century is coming back to life.

Miners are digging again where their forebears once unearthed riches from eight historic mines that honeycomb Sutter Gold Mining Co.’s holdings about 50 miles (80 kilometres) southeast of Sacramento. Last week, mill superintendent Paul Skinner poured the first thin stream of glowing molten gold into a mould.

“Nothing quite like it,” murmured Skinner, who has been mining for 65 years. It was just four ounces (112 grams), culled from more than eight tons of ore, but it signalled the end of $20 million worth of construction and the pending start of production. The company announced the ceremonial first pour before financial markets opened Monday, marking the mine’s official reincarnation.

By spring, the company’s 110 employees expect to be removing 150 tons of ore a day from a site immediately north of the old Lincoln Mine, enough to produce nearly 2,000 ounces (56,000 grams) of gold each month.

The company projects resources of more than 682,000 ounces (19.3 million grams) of gold worth more than $1 billion at today’s prices. Company officials say they are confident there is far more in their historically rich section of the 120-mile (190-kilometre)-long Mother Lode region of the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Reopening the mine has been anything but a gold rush, however.

It took three decades for the mine’s operators to obtain more than 40 environmental permits. By contrast, the old Wild West miners wreaked such devastation that they prompted some of the nation’s first conservation efforts nearly 130 years ago.

“We’ve gone from no regulation to probably the other extreme,” said Bob Hutmacher, the company’s chief financial officer.

In recent decades, most of California’s gold has come from the state’s desert regions. However, high gold prices recently spurred what authorities say was a rogue surface gold mine in El Dorado County, east of Sacramento. The owners now face criminal charges.

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