New Era Mine gets Butte County hearing
Supervisors hear pros and cons of gold operation
Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly was distracted. A 1,000-acre, wind-fanned wildfire was raging near Thermalito, in his district, and he was trying to keep updated on it in the midst of Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors.
But the subject at hand—the future of the New Era Mine, in Dry Creek Canyon, east of Butte College—was so interesting and important that he stayed as focused as possible, despite being interrupted often by messages during the day-long, June 10 hearing.
As the CN&R reported earlier (”Gold rush on Dry Creek,” Newslines, March 6), a classic conflict has broken out between some gold miners and the neighbors who live along the road leading to their mine.
Before 2007, the New Era Mine was a small-scale operation owned by Ron Logan and his wife, Betty. Then, with gold prices at record highs, the Logans hooked up with an outfit called North Continent Land & Timber, Inc., which wanted to invest in their mine.
On the assumption that Logan’s original 1982 mining permit was still valid, NCLT sank megabucks into the 18-acre operation, increasing its output dramatically. Neighbors were worried about the impact on their creek, their narrow gravel road and the springs that supply their domestic water. They took their concerns to the county.
As a result, and following a cleanup-and-abatement order issued in December 2007, the county Planning Commission considered the matter in a multi-hour hearing that took up most of two meetings. On April 10, the commission voted 3-2 to require the mine to obtain an amended permit and reclamation plan.
Both the mine operators and neighbors appealed the commission’s decision to the Board of Supervisors. The operators believed the original permit was legal and sufficient, while the neighbors believed it was no longer in effect and wanted NCLT to go through a fresh application process, including full environmental review.
The central issue, said Tim Snellings, director of the county Department of Development Services, concerned just how much dirt the original permit allows the operator to move each day. It states that the operation was “to be limited to a maximum of 20 cubic yards per day,” but it’s unclear whether that refers to “native material"—i.e., soil—or “concentrated material"—the gold-containing black sand extracted only after many tons of soil have been moved and washed.
The spokesman for the operators was Blair Will, an attorney with the Sacramento firm Scharff, Brady and Vinding. In a lengthy PowerPoint presentation, he argued that it was “unreasonable” to expect this kind of mine, which requires removing a huge amount of soil before the gold-bearing sand is reached, to make money when it can move only 20 cubic yards a day. He showed a photo of a man standing next to a pile of dirt to illustrate how small the quantity was.
“For $44.25, a miner can get a permit to dredge 30 to 50 cubic yards a day from a stream,” he said.
Will argued that, while Logan admittedly had failed to file annual reports as required, the county also had failed in its obligation to inspect the mine and that, in its recent actions, had been guilty of “deficient procedures” that were “actionable.”
“Is that a threat?” Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi asked. Will sidestepped the question.
Also speaking for the operators were hydrologist Don Olson, who said the mine operation was having no effect on the springs in the area, and geologist Chuck Kull, who said he was “surprised” to learn the 20-cubic-yards figure referred to native material. “That’s an incredibly insignificant amount,” he said.
The neighbors’ presentation followed. It was led by Richard Meyers, a 30-year resident of the canyon. Logan, he said, had never completed his reclamation plan, never paid his financial assurances, and never filed an annual report. The reason the county didn’t inspect the mine was because it was “under the county’s radar.”
One of the Planning Commission’s findings was that the mine had been in continuous operation. Not so, Meyers said. For many years—from about 1990 on, Meyers said—Logan didn’t even operate the mine. He made his living instead as a rural mail carrier. And in 1992, in order to avoid paying a waste discharge fee, he notified the Department of Fish and Game that he was no longer operating the mine.
The mine, in other words, was abandoned. That renders the original mining permit invalid, Meyers argued. The new operators must therefore apply for a new permit, with all that entails.
A good number of neighbors trooped to the lectern to express their disapproval of the mine for various reasons and ask that mitigation measures be developed to offset its impacts.
They, too, had hired a hydrologist, Steven Deverel, who explained that his tests showed a down-canyon flow of water that created a “hydraulic connection” between springs above and below the mine. Only further study could determine the mine’s potential impact, he said.
An environmental consultant named Dean Carrier said the mine’s original “negative declaration” of environmental impact was no longer valid, given the profound changes in the scope of the mining operation. And Steve Streeter, who’d been the county planner involved in discussions when the original permit was issued, stated that it was “very intentional that the 20 cubic yards was to be native material.” Had concentrated material been intended, the record would have reflected that, he explained.
Finally, Tim Pompy, of the state Office of Mine Reclamation, told the board that it was clear to him “that this was intended to be a fairly small operation.”
In the end, the supervisors decided not to make a decision on the project, continuing it to their June 24 meeting and asking staff to do further research. By the time they did so, it was after 6 p.m., and the fire in District 1 had torched 1,600 acres and destroyed 21 mobile homes and nearly 100 vehicles.