Back to the mine?
Cherokee was born a mining town. Settled in the 1840s by Cherokee Indians looking for a peaceful, free patch of earth to farm, the open foothill acres atop Table Mountain boomed virtually overnight when a long-retired warrior had the misfortune to find a modest nugget of shiny gold there.
Like locusts, miners descended by the thousands, dedicated to blasting into nothingness entire mountainsides in the determined pursuit of fortune. They muscled out the Cherokees, but by the 1890s the miners, too, had dispersed, in part because of the state’s first ‘environmental” regulation, which decreed that hydraulic mining—the high-pressure stripping away of earth with giant hoses—was mucking up the state’s rivers.
Cherokee became a town of ghosts. The earth worked to heal itself. One hundred years ticked by.
People drifted up the mountain, bought property and settled down there to avoid town life. They could nod on the road to a neighbor but didn’t lie awake at night tormented by his stereo. The anarchic citizens of Cherokee ‘town” gathered civilly together for celebrations of Mother’s Day, Christmas, Fourth of July. They helped each other, when required. Otherwise they cherished their solitude and a rural life where a person was allowed to keep, like Noah, all the animals he could want or need.
Now the most recent arrival, Idaho-based Advanced Mineral Technology, has leased several hundred acres of the old gold mine site, hoping to shake the last profits out of it by scooping up sand for glass and, maybe, selling the odd nugget or gem. By virtue of the area’s inarticulate zoning laws, this company may get its wish.
The scattered Cherokee citizenry have begun to understand that, if AMT’s plans for its Sugarloaf Mine are approved, the lives of more than some of them will be filled, night and day for 23 years, with as much light and noise and dust as any apartment-dweller’s on San Francisco’s Van Ness Boulevard. They have begun to live not only as a community, but also as a political entity prepared for a long siege.
Waiting out the dog days
It’s summer now on table Mountain, and wildflower stalkers and spring cyclists have evaporated. Notes pinned to fence posts at the head of dirt roads attest to the fact that life goes fitfully on there, but, other than the occasional car-passing wave to a neighbor, the community of Cherokee, as always this time of year, seems to have disappeared.
Even in this unusual era of community turmoil, not much has happened in terms of consolidated action since the April 5 meeting with officials from the Butte County Planning Department. This “scoping meeting” packed the community’s historic white-clapboard schoolhouse with 100 or so natural loners drawn together into a determined, cohesive mass. They were dedicated to putting an end to both the AMT silica mine and the political career of First District Supervisor Bob Beeler, today generally regarded in the community as something of a traitor, a man who coldly sold out his constituents for $2,000 in campaign contributions from the mine’s principals.
Since then, the traditionally depoliticized Cherokee July Fourth parade featured an anti-mine float marshaled by the Cherokee Preservation Society, with synchronized stop-sign bearers and guitarist Charlie Robinson strumming atop a hay bale. A couple of newsletters have begun circulating, and a fledgling Web site is up and running (www.cherokee.f2s.com). And wiry veterinarian Lee Edwards continues his weekly sweeps through the Butte County Planning Department, leafing through what’s new in the Sugarloaf Mine file.
With a characteristically concentrated and quiet New England anger, Edwards scrutinizes AMT’s soothing reassurances as carefully as he monitors the bees flying in and out of the observation window of his home office. Unusually, at a recent meeting of the preservation society, his controlled analytical simmer flared briefly, and he erupted. “It’s a blasphemy,” Edwards pronounced. “This mine’s a nasty damn thing.”
Meanwhile, over in Oroville, phlegmatic professionalism prevails at the Planning Department, as the tectonic pressure to create and submit for approval an environmental-impact report grinds on. Only a couple of the consulting firms queried have even responded to departmental pleas for an intelligent EIR. And, after an appropriate consultant does show interest, the contract must still be negotiated and then approved by the Butte County Board of Supervisors. Only then will the experts lift the lid and peek at this particular can of worms.
Phil Cash, AMT’s president, has spent the last few months cooling his heels in the Yukon, wrangling with Canadians over a 60,000-acre lead mine. He’s the sort of galactic-sized character you’d run across in a Heinlein novel, cheerfully exploiting solar systems with a squad of hired engineers and a sentient spaceship. Cash treats residents courteously, responds neutrally to the media, and approaches the doubting with a smile and outstretched hand.
He really seems to want this project, but California’s wary and deliberate permitting process obviously leaves him antsy. His mine would realize a steady, $17-per-cubic-ton stability from the silica market and offer a satisfying flutter from “associated clay, zircon, chromium, gold and micro-diamonds.” This last could net, according to Cash’s broad estimate, a potential 40 percent of the haul.
Small wonder he’d like the waiting to be over.
Sins of omission
Jack McWherter, longtime Cherokee real-estate agent and unofficial “mayor” to that seldom-assembled, unknown number of souls who call Cherokee home, says people are still moving into the area but admits they’re also moving out. And, he says, some of those leaving are fleeing sites near the mine.
McWherter notes that these people “of course won’t say” they’re moving out because of the mine, but the implication is clear: Those developed properties bordering the site, or sitting across the road from it, already are feeling the cold fingers of a lowered valuation. Another 40 parcels of five acres each, and 250 pieces of 20 acres or smaller, lie within the immediate vicinity of the mine and thus are darkening beneath the same shadow. This is one of Table Mountain’s largest concentrations of separate properties—definitely the residential rather than the ranching end.
Before the April 5 meeting, McWherter had asked Dick Schmittel, AMT’s vice president, if the company would buy some of the property adjacent to the mine, to mitigate the project’s “negative influence.”
If you do it for one, Schmittel had averred, where do you stop?
But that was precisely McWherter’s point: How far away do you have to move until you’ve left the taint of industry and settled back again in plain countryside? With only talk of a possible mine, once-profitable houses are already no longer worth the balance of their mortgages. As Bob Arnold, whose 15 acres would overlook most of the project, cynically translates the AMT position: “I don’t need to buy you out. I can run you out.”
“The way I read this whole thing is, it’s a planning glitch with the county,” says McWherter. “The county Planning Department has allowed an anomaly to take place, where we’ve got a mining area right next to a residential area. And they just don’t go together.”
The problem appears to be one of inattention—on the county’s part, undoubtedly, but area residents’ as well, since both have been slow to react to the troublesome unclassified “zoning” that has overlain most of Cherokee’s residential/agricultural “classification” since the belated adoption of a county-wide General Plan in 1971.
Like something out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or perhaps 1984, Cherokee is classified agricultural/residential but zoned unclassified. What this means, in practice, is that most folks move here for, and expect their neighbors to maintain, an agricultural residence. Yet, equipped with a special-use permit, a Cherokee property owner may lawfully establish a junkyard, a racetrack, a cannery, a commercial airport, a tannery or a slaughterhouse, as well as delve into “industrial uses which might be objectionable by reason of emission of noise, offensive odor, smoke, dust, bright light, vibration, or involv[e] the handling of explosives or dangerous materials.” At one time or another, AMT has been accused of threatening the country atmosphere with every one of these objectionables.
Some rural dwellers prefer this “unclassified” status, because they believe it gives them the latitude to live the way they want, says Jon Luvaas, a Chico attorney and mediator who helped usher in the county General Plan of 1971. Only belatedly they discover that it’s difficult to “live the way you want” once the earthmovers start plowing the property next door.
“It’s a political mess brought about by conservative county supervisors uninterested in county zoning,” Luvaas observes. The General Plan’s intent for Cherokee, he says, was “never very clear, and the intention to please everyone usually means that no one is.”
This may likely prove the case if, in the years ahead, the county continues to adhere to Cherokee’s open-season designation. Policymakers will be able to apply the General Plan, like readers of the Bible, to reach whatever result is desired. The plan, after all, proposes that we should simultaneously “promote the development of new industry in the county” and “maintain public health and safety by requiring proper location and design for uses with offensive odors, dust, and smoke"; “encourage extraction and processing of identified deposits of building materials and other valued mineral resources” and seek to “encourage preservation of significant historical sights.”
“If they’re going to put a mine in, then rezone Cherokee to industrial,” recommends McWherter. “I’ll put an auto-wrecking yard up here.”
The new mineral rush
“I’m for whatever is legal,” declares Supervisor Beeler, who comes across as the very embodiment of General Plan broadmindedness. “The whole point is property rights, but you work within the rules.”
By Beeler’s rules, Cherokee has been and still is an area dedicated to mining and thus a reasonable place to pursue it. “Like any other American citizen, they [AMT] bought a piece of property with certain intentions for it,” he says. “They should be allowed to go ahead, as long they’ve met certain conditions in the General Plan.” (To be exact, AMT has only leased its 790 acres; it will purchase the property if the project is approved.)
Beeler’s point of view is shared by his philosophical cohorts on the Board of Supervisors, Curt Josiassen and Kim Yamaguchi, and has fueled approval for several other digging operations in the area, among them a gravel quarry in Spring Valley at Wheelock Road and another at Coal Canyon Road. There’s also the rival silica mine on the Oroville side of Table Mountain. It will soon be under operation by Mineral Resources Inc. and create a 50-year misery for those living on Table Mountain Blvd., along which 60,000-pound trucks will roar every five minutes, 12 hours a day.
“People are just taking advantage of what we have to offer,” says Beeler of these yawning holes in the ground. It’s business, legitimate “American citizen” stuff. People have a right to do what they want on their own property, even if they’re not people but, as in AMT’s case, an out-of-state corporation that wants to run a mineral-processing plant 24 hours a day for 23 straight years.
“Do I go over a list of new businesses and decide which ones should operate?” Beeler scoffed. “What would I be then?”
And yet the process specifically calls upon the county—first the Planning Commission and then the Board of Supervisors—to decide whether the project should be granted a special-use permit. Legally, Beeler and the other county officials can decide that the mine is an incompatible use and deny the permit.
Beeler concedes the General Plan could use some attention: “We have to revisit it, yes we do.” And while he seems primarily concerned that “our recreation isn’t spelled out as it should be,” he does admit that Cherokee-like clashes between industrial and residential uses have never been addressed in the plan at all.
Beeler’s secretary suggested a call to Cherokee resident Terri Thurman. This proved useful, for of the hundreds of Cherokee citizens encountered in pursuit of this story, Thurman and her husband stood alone in raising their voices in support of the mine.
Thurman was actually awaiting my call. “I’m very much in favor of [the mine],” she recited. “What this county needs is jobs, and this company is offering them, along with medical, dental, and life insurance benefits. They’ve bent over backwards introducing themselves to the community and working with it.” She declared that those against the project “are opposing it for the sake of opposing” and “not giving the public all the information to make up their minds"—though it should be pointed out that the mine’s opponents, unlike its proponents, have no way to reach the public but via free media, and AMT’s permit application is publicly available to all, any weekday, down at the Planning Department.
“It’s the same sand they’re mining down the road,” Thurman stressed, “and I don’t see kids dropping dead of silica.”
Perhaps the money gained from the new jobs, property taxes, and water fees will help defray expenses residents believe will result from the mine operation: litigation for lowered property taxes, medical costs for health problems, an expensive toxic cleanup. AMT, it could be said, in both its good and bad guises, would create something of a long-term monster for the county.
Mining the mountain
The project’s sheer scope, its gargantuan design, its breathtaking casualness about its own enormity do provide an unsettling sort of grandeur.
Of the 790 acres leased, the gouge, ranging in depth between 10 and 250 feet, will affect some 86 acres. Another 20 acres will be “disturbed” for roads and the processing plant. Although mining operations will be “limited” to one daylight shift on weekdays, the processing plant will operate every day, around the clock, for 23 years. An estimated 300,000 tons of sand will be extracted annually. Ultimately, the project will remove 5.7 million cubic yards of earth. AMT must then, in compliance with the California Surface Mining and Reclamation Act, somehow “renew” 110 acres.
AMT attempts an answer to everything in its 150-page, relentlessly efficient-sounding proposal. This is “new age mining,” with cozy third-party land swaps via the Bureau of Land Management for wetlands mitigation and a patented, purportedly chemical- and dust-free mechanical process to liberate the valuables from the dross.
Beginning six months after the digging, replanted “cells,” replicated one-tenth of an acre at a time, will strive to replace the riparian and other canyon habitat currently enjoyed by the 40-odd animal species and 120 plant types that will be displaced.
“Birds roosting on little two-foot pines,” commented mine neighbor Carol Hamilton at the April 5 meeting. “That’s not a very good idea.”
Property values? AMT says the processing plant will operate 2,000 feet from the nearest residence, and thus property values will in no way decline. Disturbance of the water table? AMT will suck up all the water it needs from Lake Oroville, piping it to the site. Sensitive archaeological sites? They will in all ways be “avoided.” Diesel rigs belching onto and off Highway 70 every half-hour for two decades? The company will “improve” the road. Lung-rotting silicosis? Respirators and a change of clothes at the end of every shift (no respirators and clothes for residents, however). Noise? Specially muffled trucks and, instead of blaring horns, a strobe-signaling system at night. Diesel fumes near the elementary school? Install an air monitor.
Nothing about this project fazes AMT, not even the question, “Would you want to live here with this behind you?” This was asked of AMT President Phil Cash by Jim Norton, at a pow-wow on Norton’s mine-adjacent property.
“No,” responded Cash.
“What I find interesting,” says Kevin Jeys, a seven-year refugee in Cherokee, “is that Cash lives in Fairfield, Idaho, a town described as ‘a little spot by the side of the road.’ Obviously, Cash is a country kind of guy. He knows what this is all about. Yet he wants to come here, to our little spot by the side of the road, and, for money, rip off the face of the earth and give cancer to our children. I wonder how he would feel if I came to his town and announced I was going to make tar, 24 hours a day, for 23 years, up the road from his house?”
Eat my dust
“The level of public controversy associated with this project is high,” understated a June 26 Planning Department letter to prospective consultant Insite Environmental. “Additionally, the environmental impact associated with mine permitting and reclamation is complex and multi-disciplined. Therefore proposals should take into account the extra effort associated with a controversial project.”
As part of the EIR, the California Department of Conservation, which oversees mining operations, requires answers to its comments that particularly address, among other concerns, erosion control and water delivery before it will allow the county to approve the AMT project.
And, separate from the CDC concerns is the mercury nightmare, the “toxic legacy” explored in a May 20 Enterprise-Record article. It turns out 19th-century hydraulic miners “lost as much as one pound of mercury for every three or four ounces of gold they recovered.” So what is the likelihood of this contaminating substance turning up again when AMT sifts its dollars from the soil?
Meanwhile, AMT says its water will be recycled, but will it be clean? Who will monitor air and water quality, and who will pay for it? More to the point, if air and water turn up dirty, who will pay to cleanse it? Can impoverished Butte County afford the long-term vigilance such a project provokes—air and water tested, requirements satisfied? AMT may promise anything, but the county will need to hold the company, or its heirs, to it.
Spring Valley Elementary School, located at the junction of Highway 70 and Pentz Road, 2,000 feet down-slope from the plant site, is even now trying to pry money from the state to clean up contaminants from wells fouled by Cherokee mines that stopped operating more than 100 years ago. Water tests from the school’s three wells indicate an 8,400-percent higher level of manganese than normal and 1,700 percent higher for iron; experts believe these wildly elevated levels can be attributed, to some incalculable degree, to mining runoff.
Spring Valley Principal Marlene Oberdorff expressed concern April 5 about well pollution, as well as about truck/school bus gridlock and airborne dust. Norah Burnham, the school speech pathologist, characterized the school as a virtual vortex. “There’s always this circle of wind,” she said. “You can’t tell me that stuff isn’t going to be blown around.”
“There will be no dust,” vows Cash. “I’m not worried about it at all.”
Cash is less sanguine about the permitting process. “I’m disappointed—very much so,” he says. “It’s dragged on longer than need be. California seems to have its problems moving projects forward.”
Why was Cherokee chosen in the first place? “We wanted industrial minerals; we wanted silica,” Cash says. “Dick Schmittel, our vice president, spent months searching for potential areas. Cherokee is what we settled on, and we’re going ahead with it.”
Ever done a project this close to a community? “We did one in Sun Valley, Idaho, about 15 years ago, and it was fine,” he replies. Then, touching briefly on local unease: “People stretch things.”
According to Pam Morris, publisher of the Ketchum-based weekly newspaper Idaho Mountain Express, the Idaho project was, by Sugarloaf Mine standards, a comparatively small rock-crushing mill about three miles outside Ketchum at Warm Springs Canyon.
“I remember Phil,” Morris recalls. “He was really pushing his project. Most of his energy seemed to be spent getting the thing up and running, but nothing much seemed to come of it.”
Land of wealth and natural beauty
Every spring a locally famous, fabulous 1,000-foot-long wall of cascading hedge roses marks Bob Arnold’s property facing Cherokee Road. Behind the wall, his 15 acres contain foundations from the original town site. Some 150 years ago Welsh miners set stones there for a smithy, a general store, and the mine superintendent’s house, among others. Before they burned during the 1860s, most of these structures were two-story buildings with basements, backed up against an old irrigation flume.
Arnold strolls to a slope that falls away toward the mine precincts and looks out at the airy gap—once solid earth—between Sugarloaf Peak and Table Mountain. It’s a varied, well-vegetated view now, a manmade canyon softened and lived in by nature. Though not, perhaps, for long.
“As far as I’m concerned, Bob Beeler created this thing a year ago when he opened the door for gravel quarries,” says Arnold. His new view, should the mine be permitted, would transform from wilderness to work site. To the south, trucks; to the east, the dump (or “soil salvage stockpile area,” as the AMT proposal has it); to the west, the processing plant. Compared to the expansive panorama he now contemplates, his future looks grim. He’s not going anywhere, though. He’s staying to fight.
Cherokee historian Carol Robirds argues the community already contributes to the county—by first luring wildflower trippers up Table Mountain and then leaving them without even a lemonade stand to spend money at. Logic decrees they must continue to Chico or Oroville or Paradise. “I was talking to people last week,” Robirds said in April, “from New York, Michigan, Washington, Texas—tourists! They’re coming in; they’re eating and sleeping here. We’re doing our job to bring money in. We don’t need a mine.”
Jack McWherter discovered that another thorn in the county’s side, The Barry H. Kirshner Wildlife Refuge in Durham, was looking for a new home about the same time a man stopped by his office wondering where he could set up a miniature passenger railroad. McWherter thought, why not put the wildlife refuge in the canyon and send tourists through it on the train? That would fall under the realm of “unclassified” activity.
“Where are the supervisors heading?” wonders Lee Edwards. “What do they want their county to look like in a hundred years? Are they going to become their letterhead—'Land of Natural Wealth and Beauty'—and help maintain a livable environment, or are they going to grab all the resources?”
Given this litigious age, perhaps attorney Luvaas should have the last word. He believes there are multiple grounds for landowner litigation if the mine proposal goes through. "There are several serious ‘rights’ issues, including damage to groundwater, to property, to lifestyle," he says. "Especially if the tendency was to just want it approved, no matter what. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens here."