Supervisors approve New Era Mine

Board majority ignores Dolan’s first-hand account

DIGGING FOR GOLD<br>This photo of the New Era Mine was taken last year, before its big new processing plant was constructed.

This photo of the New Era Mine was taken last year, before its big new processing plant was constructed.

Of the five members of the Butte County Board of Supervisors, only one—Jane Dolan—was in office in 1981 and ‘82, when the controversial New Era Mine obtained its original mining permit.

Whether that permit allowed the kind of intensive mining now going on at the 18-acre site in Dry Creek Canyon east of Butte College was the central issue the board had to decide at its meeting Tuesday (June 24), and Dolan was convinced it did not.

“I was there,” she said on several occasions. “The whole discussion [at the time] was, ‘How do we do this without having to require an environmental-impact statement?’ And the way we could do it was by starting small.”

The fate of the mine was on the line. In April, following a hearing that lasted two days, the county Planning Commission had recommended that the board require the current operators to obtain an amended mining permit and reclamation plan, along with meeting various environmental and financial-assurance conditions.

Both the operators, an outfit called North Continent Land & Timber, and neighbors of the mine had appealed the decision, and the supervisors held a day-long hearing on June 10, at which they heard from both proponents and opponents.

Tuesday’s meeting was specifically for the supervisors to decide among themselves what they wanted to do with the mine.

As Tim Snellings, director of the county’s Department of Development Services, explained at the beginning, the key issue was whether the original permit called for the removal of 20 cubic yards of “native” material—i.e., dirt and rocks—or the same amount of “concentrated” material—the ore-containing black sand found only by uncovering tons of rock and dirt, known as “overburden.”

The difference is huge: 20 cubic yards versus about 2,000 cubic yards per day. That’s because only about 1 percent of the raw dirt turns out to be black sand. To get 20 cubic yards of sand in a day would require the removal of somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 cubic yards of dirt and rocks.

Both Dolan and Supervisor Maureen Kirk were convinced the original permit allowed the daily removal of 20 cubic yards of raw dirt, not finished product.

As Dolan explained it, the reason why the original operators, Ron and Betty Logan, were able to get the permit without having to do an EIR or put up a substantial assurance bond (only $3,000 in their case) was because Logan agreed to start small, at 20 cubic yards per day, called Phase One in official documents. The idea was that he could thereby find out just how much gold was in the ground and then, if he wanted to do more substantial mining, increase to Phase Two (40 yards per day) or Phase Three (80 yards), with appropriate environmental study and mitigation.

“Phase One was about two acres, very small,” Dolan said. “If Mr. Logan could figure out what to do with his muddy water, he could come back to the board with a bigger project. But in the lens of the decision of ‘81-'82, it was to be small.”

Also agreeing with Dolan’s take on the matter, at the June 10 hearing, were Steve Streeter, the county planner who’d worked on the original permit application, and Tim Pompy, of the state Office of Mine Reclamation. Streeter told the board that “it was very intentional that the 20 cubic yards was to be native material,” and Pompy stated that it was clear to him that “this was intended to be a fairly small operation.”

The problem, of course, is that it is no longer a small operation—not even close. North Continent, spurred on by gold prices at record highs and believing the original permit was valid, poured megabucks into the mine, building a large new processing plant and aggressively mining the site.

By all accounts, the company is acting responsibly in terms of protecting the environment. State officials with both the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Department of Fish and Game testified on June 10 that the mine is in compliance with their operational standards. They noted that this kind of “cut-and-cover” operation that ultimately removes relatively little material and fills in its overburden holes as it goes is far less damaging to the environment than, say, a gravel mine.

The Planning Commission had recommended that, in addition to getting an amended permit and reclamation plan, North Continent should be required to put up a $267,000 financial-assurance bond and pay some $50,000 in costs to the county.

The effect of the operation on downstream springs, which neighbors rely on for domestic water, has not been assessed, however. And there is little doubt that anyone who came forward tomorrow with a plan for an operation as big as this one would be required to prepare an environmental-impact report.

At the same time, were the board majority to agree with Dolan and Kirk, it would mean shutting down the mine, at least until North Continent was able to obtain an amended permit—with environmental review—and reclamation plan.

It soon became clear from their comments that the other three supervisors—Bill Connelly, Curt Josiassen and Kim Yamaguchi—were trying not to do that, even if it meant denying what Dolan said she’d seen with her own eyes.

A key part of their argument was that Logan, on a reclamation-plan form filed with the state, had checked off that he would be removing 50,000 to 250,000 cubic yards annually, an amount impossible to realize at only 20 cubic yards per day. (Nobody mentioned, however, that at the full 2,000 cubic yards per day, the maximum amount would be removed in less than five months.)

They also referred to early documents that referred to as many as 10 employees and the use of bulldozers and other heavy equipment to argue that the mine was far more than a “mom-and-pop” operation.

Connelly acknowledged that “under current standards” the mine wouldn’t be allowed but insisted that it could be held to high standards, even under terms of the original permit. Full financial assurance and regular monitoring, he said, would do the job.

Yamaguchi agreed, saying he’d also like to see more coordination with state agencies, a prohibition on night mining and monitoring of springs in the area. The operation has a life cycle of only 10 or 12 years, he said. “There’s a 12-acre hole there. It’s got to be taken care of.”

Josiassen, the board chairman, who said he’d once been in the mining business, stated that the 20-cubic-yard figure didn’t make sense to him. “Anybody who placer mines knows you don’t process the overburden. You remove it to get to the ore-bearing material. … At 20 years per day, you wouldn’t even get to the gold in 100 days.”

Dolan was clearly frustrated. “Over and over Mr. Logan told us, “It’s a little hole, a small operation. It’s just me.’ But that isn’t what we have now, which is why we need a revised permit.”

Dolan argued that, if the board upheld the original permit, it couldn’t legally put conditions on it. County Counsel Bruce Alpert agreed.

Nevertheless, Connelly made a complicated motion of intent to deny the neighbors’ appeals and “partially” uphold the operators’ appeal to include the $267,000 bond and $50,000 in costs, as well as a clause indemnifying the county in case of problems.

“I’m just blown away,” Kirk said. “I see it clearly that Mr. Logan was trying to make it a small operation so he wouldn’t have to deal with all those pesky environmental requirements.”

“We’re giving staff an impossible task,” Dolan said. “We’re asking them to take a small-operation permit from 1982 and turn it into a full-blown industrial operation.”

When Yamaguchi asked for a “spirit of cooperation” among the various parties, Dolan responded, “I think a spirit of cooperation would be in place if the revised permit were required and all parties knew exactly what was expected of them.”

But Josiassen was unwilling to ask a business owner to get a new permit after 25 years.

The vote in favor of Connelly’s motion was 3-2, with Dolan and Kirk dissenting. The matter will be back before the board in about a month for final approval.

After the meeting, Dolan told a couple of reporters, “If someone doesn’t file a lawsuit over this, I’ll give up my faith that people care about this county.”