Slow and steady wins the race

Cherokee residents and members of the Cherokee Preservation Society are continuing their fight against the Mineral Resources silica sand mine in Morris Ravine by calling on the state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board for more oversight of mine operations.

The society’s newest source of ammunition against the mine, one of two controversial projects in the Table Mountain area, comes from Mineral Resources itself, which failed to follow a January cleanup-and-abatement order levied by the regional water board.

The order demanded the company address the problem of sediment runoff from the mine site itself, as well as from a haul road the company built to haul extracted minerals from the site. The mine, which was issued a mining permit in 1994, is still in the preliminary stages of its operation and has yet to begin excavations.

The company received a notice of violation in mid-April and apparently has made some effort to comply, said Scott Zaits, who oversees the mine for the water board. But he can’t yet tell if the mechanisms the company has provided will work to stop the runoff problem.

“People keep asking me, ‘Have they complied?'” said Zaits. “Well, I don’t know. There have been good-faith efforts, but I won’t know if they’ll work until we get a ripping storm through there. It’s got to be raining cats and dogs so I can see how efficient those control mechanisms are.”

Zaits said sediment runoff—basically mud—can be a big problem for taxpayers as well as aquatic life if it makes its way into major waterways, in this case the Feather River.

“The waters of the state have beneficial uses­drinking water, recreation, boating, swimming, fishing, power production,” he said. “If you have sediment in the water, it degrades those beneficial uses. If the water is used for drinking and it has sediment, then you have to treat it, and that raises costs. [Also,] if you aren’t getting sunlight down to the algae and to the underwater flora, you don’t get photosynthesis, so basically you’re screwing up the [fish’s] food cycle.”

Mineral Resources’ assistant manager, Jim Prouty, said the company was in compliance with the January cleanup order, having completed the work within two days of the order’s issuance. Prouty blamed the violation on the engineering firm that Mineral Resource contracted to do the work, saying they did not fill out the necessary paperwork that would prove the work had been completed. That company has since been replaced by a new firm, Sierra Pacific Group, which recently began to submit the necessary reports to the water quality board.

“The violation was basically for our settling pond, which was fixed immediately,” Prouty said. “It’s the putting down on paper what we’ve done and how we’ve done it that was lacking. It’s one thing to do the work, but we have to provide proof and documentation.”

The company claims to have dug a new retention pond, regraded and resurfaced the haul road, and placed straw bales in strategic locations to help control runoff and erosion.

But members of the preservation society, which has been fighting the mine for several years now, said Mineral Resources is playing a shell game with the water board and the public by putting forth only the bare minimum of work required to appease its overseers and then claiming that it has addressed environmental concerns.

“They do not take care of the problems,” said preservation society member Ellen Simon, in a letter to the CN&R. “They’ll say they do, but agencies and we say—by pointing to proof—that they aren’t.”

Simon said the preservation society believes the mine project was improperly permitted from the very beginning. Society members fear the project will bring noise, traffic and congestion to the tiny, historic town of Cherokee and may cause permanent ecological damage to the area.

Because the mine site is on land that was formerly used for gold mining, project opponents worry that operations there could stir up toxic compounds like mercury, which was used at many gold mines in the early 20th century to extract gold from the surrounding soil. Since a full environmental report was never completed at the site, no one knows whether the threat of contamination is real.

Prouty said that, while there very well may be mercury on the property, the mining site itself has been extensively tested and has come up clean for what he called “heavies,” or heavy metals.

“Where the mercury is is not going to be disturbed any more than what Mother Nature is doing right now,” he said, citing the economic downside of trying to sell a product made from contaminated sand. “If we found mercury, we would have to clean it up. Who’s going to buy sand with mercury in it to put in their kids’ sandbox?”

A similar project proposed in the area by Idaho mining company Advanced Materials Technology (AMT) has met with much more resistance than was offered to the Morris Ravine project. Partly due to new environmental laws and perhaps partly due to increased public awareness, AMT was asked to provide a full environmental-impact report before the Board of Supervisors would even consider a permit to operate a mine. AMT has yet to contract for an EIR, which could cost upward of $500,000 yet offers no guarantee of a permit being granted.