Muddy waters

Local silica mine faced with mitigation measures, potential fines in contamination investigation

California Department of Fish and Wildlife warden Josh Brennan at Morris Ravine Creek.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife warden Josh Brennan at Morris Ravine Creek.

Photo by Kyle Delmar

Morris Ravine Creek is usually as clear as any other waterway in Butte County’s eastern foothills, but heavy rain makes the water run the color of chocolate milk.

That’s not normal. According to Josh Brennan, a warden with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), storm conditions churn up unnatural deposits of sediment that settle into cracks and crevices within the creek, burying the bases of trees in several inches of sand and smothering most aquatic life.

“Most of the time, it looks like a nice creek,” Brennan said, “but the creek is essentially dead.”

The source of the sediment is Morris Ravine Mine, a 240-acre silica quarry and processing plant about 4 miles north of Oroville, Brennan told the CN&R. The excavated hillside is visible from Cherokee Road on Table Mountain, but most of the property is hidden from public view. When the holding ponds on the site overflow during storm conditions, the runoff enters the creek and flows downstream, creating a light-brown plume as it enters the Feather River near Oroville Dam.

Brennan believes the mine is causing severe environmental damage to the waterway. In 2015, he filed a report with the Butte County District Attorney’s Office, but the DA declined to prosecute the mining company—Oroville-based Mineral Resources LLC. The DA instead referred the case to the state-run Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, which is now investigating Mineral Resources.

A full-scale, court-mandated cleanup likely would shut down the mine, Brennan said. The company employs 35 local workers.

“Just from my experience, I know the cleanup measures on something of this magnitude would be horrifically expensive,” he said. “You could imagine what that would do to the operation.”

Mineral Resources has consistently failed to monitor and report stormwater discharges dating back to August 2013 and has a history of violating the terms of its general industrial permit, according to a water board inspection report dated July 20.

In November 2015, the water quality board served a notice of violation to Chris Van Veldhuizen, the company’s president, for failing to develop an adequate discharge-prevention plan and using substandard pollution-control technologies. The next July, citing a lack of progress, the board issued a cleanup and abatement order with a deadline of Jan. 1, 2017. According to the report, the mine was still in violation past the deadline.

“[Mineral Resources] has complied with some of our requirements but certainly not all of them,” said Bryan Smith, a water resource control engineer with the Central Valley Water Quality Control Board. “There are ongoing water-quality concerns at the facility. We simply don’t have the information, at this point, that shows they have completed the required actions to ensure water quality will be protected into the future.”

The damage wrought upon Morris- Ravine Creek has been significant. In March 2016, surveyors estimated that the creek had been inundated with more than 1,200 cubic yards of sediment—enough sand to fill roughly 85 standard-size dump trucks.

If the conditions persist, the water board may enforce a fine of $10,000 per day of violation, Smith said: “Financial penalties are certainly on the table. Our main interest is achieving the water quality protection we need out there, and if we have to pursue enforcement through fines, we will.”

The mine also is facing a legal challenge from the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, according to Legal NewsLine. On June 13, the nonprofit group filed a complaint against Mineral Resources and Van Veldhuizen in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, alleging that the polluted stormwater discharges violate the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (aka Clean Water Act). The group is seeking civil penalties of $37,500 per day day of violation.

Van Veldhuizen responded to the CN&R’s questions via email. He said Mineral Resources is striving to improve conditions at the mine and cooperate with state water regulators despite the company’s financial difficulties, spending some $4 million over the past two years on slope stabilization, grading and revegetation efforts.

Additionally, the company has installed a more efficient water-recycling system to reduce the discharge of wastewater into holding ponds. Part of the problem is that the geological composition of the area is prone to erosion, according to Van Veldhuizen.

“Undoubtedly, the site has faced historical challenges with stormwater management,” he wrote.

Carol Oz is a retired water quality specialist with CDFW. Speaking with the CN&R from her home in Calaveras County, she recalled her first visit to Morris Ravine Creek with Brennan in the spring of 2015.

“That stream was completely sterile when I was there,” she said. “There was nothing.”

The survey compared the creek to another small waterway in the area that is unaffected by the silica mine. At the control site, she discovered a healthy watershed and thriving ecosystem of fish, insects and macroinvertebrates that animals up the food chain depend on. When Morris Ravine Creek “runs chocolate,” she said, sand covers the pebbles and cobbles, stifling many species’ ability to find food and reproduce—especially for wildlife that lays eggs, such as salmon.

“It’s like if you were sitting in your living room and somebody filled it with flour,” she said. “Fish can’t see in it and their gills have pretty sensitive lining. They can’t get away from predators, see to eat their food, and they have trouble breathing.”

There’s no question that Morris Ravine Creek is being suffocated by silica fines, Oz said. Left unchecked, the runoff will result in “chronic decay of the ecosystem.”

“It’s basically unregulated discharge wiping out a whole stream,” she said. “I would say it’s stunning that it’s still going on.”