Anyone who has stood on the banks of the Smith River, stole glimpses from the elevated curves of U.S. 199 or — best yet — braved its chilly currents for a dip has likely remarked on the surreal clarity of its water. It has an emerald transparency rarely seen outside alpine snowmelt territory. 

Del Norte County residents appreciate this cleanliness, which is why they were none too pleased about the recent news that a London mining company wants to build a nickel mine along a major tributary.

The San Francisco Chronicle ran an eyebrow-raising story over the weekend, outlining the environmental concerns. 

“Nickel mining is well known for leaving environmental scars, including several superfund sites. This type of hard rock mining is the largest source of toxic pollution in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

The Smith provides drinking water for local residents and hosts a thriving salmon fishery. So why would the government allow a dirty nickel mine nearby? The Chronicle explains:

“[T]here may not be much anybody can do to stop the company from putting in a mine. For one, the mine would be in Oregon, not California. Then there is the General Mining Act of 1872, which gives mining companies almost carte blanche to stake claims and dig for minerals.

The law, approved during the presidency of Ulysses Grant, codified the informal system of acquiring and protecting mining claims on public land by prospectors in California and Nevada starting during the Gold Rush. It says, in essence, that all citizens 18 years or older have the right to make a claim on federal land and extract minerals for a nominal fee.”

The plan has caused outrage among local fishermen, environmentalists, elected officials and Native American tribes, who are applying pressure on state and local politicians.