Did mine opponents get SLAPPed?
Coalition charges that the operators’ lawsuit is ‘frivolous’
When Rich Meyers learned he was among the targets of a million-dollar lawsuit, he got just a little, well, nervous. “That’s pretty stressful, even when you know you’re in the right,” he said.
Meyers is a leader of the Dry Creek Coalition, the group of residents of a small canyon near Butte College who for more than a year have been fighting the build-up of a large gold-digging operation, the New Era Mine, at the end of their two-mile-long road.
The mine’s backers, North Continent Land & Timber Inc., have filed several lawsuits against the coalition, as well as the Butte Environmental Council and the state Department of Conservation, accusing it among other things of trespassing and violations of the California Uniform Trade Secrets Acts for publishing photos of the mine and documents related to its approval process.
Fortunately, Meyers said, a Sacramento judge on Dec. 24 ruled that one of the suits, a request for a temporary restraining order, lacked merit. That, he added, “was a great Christmas present.”
The coalition initiated this legal warfare after the county Board of Supervisors decided, by a 3-2 vote on June 24, that the original permit and reclamation plan for the mine, issued in 1982, remained valid for the new and greatly expanded operation. On Sept. 11, the coalition filed suit in Butte County Superior Court, arguing that the board had violated the California Environmental Quality Act by permitting a use without full review that was dramatically larger than the original permitted use.
The coalition has also requested that the state Board of Mining and Geology take over from the county as the lead agency overseeing Department of Conservation regulations regarding mining. And the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (CVRWQCB) has insisted that a hearing be held before it will issue mine operators a wastewater discharge permit.
Subsequently, North Continent filed the first of its lawsuits, seeking injunctive relief from what it calls violations of its trade secrets by coalition members, whom it accuses of trespassing on its and neighbors’ property to take photographs. The company argues that its placer gold-mining operation is the result of years’ and millions of dollars’ worth of investment with a potential value of “billions,” which the coalition is endangering by publishing photos and documents on its Web site (www.saveourcreek.com).
The photos, said Meyers, were all taken from a public road, with permission from neighbors or via aerial overflight. And Keith Wagner, the coalition’s Sacramento-based attorney, noted, “Plenty of people have those documents, including the county, but you notice they didn’t file against the county.” The suit is completely frivolous and meant to intimidate the coalition, he said.
The coalition responded by charging that North Continent’s suit was a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or SLAPP, and filing its own anti-SLAPP suit in Sacramento Superior Court. Their attorney is Mark Goldowitz, of the Berkeley-based California Anti-SLAPP Project.
Subsequently there’s been considerable back-and-forth and jockeying for hearing dates, but so far the only matter actually heard by a judge was North Continent’s request for a TRO, which was soundly rejected.
“[I]ssuance of the (very broad) TRO may curtail Defendants’ legitimate petitioning activity and prejudice their ability to prosecute the related CEQA petition,” the judge wrote.
As it stands now, parties will be back in court on Jan. 16 to consider three matters: the original North Continent preliminary injunction, the coalition’s anti-SLAPP suit, and a state attorney general’s demurrer against inclusion of the Department of Conservation in the North Continent suit.
“I think the TRO ruling gives a pretty good idea of where the judge stands,” Wagner said.
Meyers agreed: “It basically devastated their case and supported our anti-SLAPP suit.”
Both men expect progress on the Board of Mining and Geology and CVRWQB matters in February, with progress on the original CEQA suit coming somewhat later. In the meantime, the mine continues to operate and the legal bills to mount—to about $25,000 so far for the coalition, Meyers said.
Phone messages left for North Continent Vice President Frank Noland and attorney Blair Will were not returned.