Down on the mine

Judge’s decision a strong repudiation of county supervisors

“What were they thinking?”

That’s what Butte County Superior Court Judge Stephen E. Benson must have been asking himself as he prepared his 54-page decision, following a hearing last month, ordering that the New Era Mine east of Butte College be shut down immediately. (See our article in Downstroke.)

Benson’s decision is clear and unequivocal, saying in essence that a three-member majority of the Butte County Board of Supervisors was completely off base when it voted last June to allow the surface gold mine to continue operating without a new use permit and environmental review.

Not only did the supervisors—Bill Connelly, Kim Yamaguchi and Curt Josiassen, who has since retired from the board—ignore the advice and statements of their own staff, state mining experts, planning staff who’d worked on the original permit, and their own county counsel, Benson finds, they also ignored Supervisor Jane Dolan’s contention that the original permit was for a much smaller mine. Dolan was on the board when it was originally approved in 1982.

What were they thinking? I asked myself that very question when the vote was taken. Here was a mine that almost overnight had gone from being Ron Logan’s little family operation on about two acres to becoming North Continent Land & Timber’s full-bore, high-tech project designed to dig up the earth and get the gold as fast as possible. By the time the county even knew what was going on, North Continent had expanded the dig to 12 acres and built a massive new soil-separation unit.

All I could figure was that Connelly and crew were so eager to support a local business that they were willing to overlook the environmental and mining laws that protect us—and the earth—from unscrupulous operators.

Judge Benson wasn’t buying any of it. He threw the case back in the laps of North Continent and the supervisors, who must now start a use-permit and environmental-review process from scratch.

Credit for this righteous ruling upholding some of the state’s most important environmental laws should go to the Dry Creek Coalition, a group of neighbors of the mine, and its attorney, Keith Wagner. Together they built an unassailable case against the mine and the county, as the results show. We’re happy to note they were awarded attorney’s fees.

Enter the Enterprise-Record: Chico’s daily reported on Judge Benson’s decision Tuesday with a front-page report, complete with photograph—as well it should have.

But that was the paper’s first mention of the mine—ever. If the story was big enough to put on the front page when the mine was shut down, why wasn’t it big enough to cover during all the months when it was being debated in Oroville, or when the case was heard before Judge Benson?

Mystified, I e-mailed editor David Little about it. He responded very pleasantly, saying I should talk with reporter Roger Aylworth, as 90 percent of E-R story ideas are reporter generated. As for himself, New Era simply hadn’t been on his “radar screen.”

I’m still mystified.