16-to-1 CEO says arsenic's not their fault, criticizes SYRCL
ALLEGHANY - Water that seeps out of the Original 16-to-1 Mine needs to meet drinking-water-quality standards for arsenic under a discharge permit to be considered Friday. Otherwise, a state agency's directors could issue a cease-and-desist order against the 100-plus-year-old gold mine, the only underground hard-rock operation left in California.
That and other issues will be considered in Sacramento at a hearing of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The state agency wants the mine's discharge into Kanaka Creek, a Middle Yuba River tributary, to contain no more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic - the new federal standard for drinking water.
Also, the state wants water samples taken directly from the mine's discharge, not from Kanaka Creek, which can dilute arsenic levels.
Mike Miller, the mine's chief executive officer, and other mine officials and stockholders plan to attend Friday's hearing and challenge the agency on a number of points.
Basically, they say the mine doesn't use any chemicals and the discharge is spring water that seeps through the old mine's tunnels, picking up naturally occurring arsenic and mercury along the way.
The discharge would continue to flow even if the mine shut down, Miller said.
He also said the mine's discharge is just a trickle compared to Kanaka Creek and the middle Yuba River, and arsenic from the mine dilutes down to nothing after it mixes in with these streams.
"It dilutes down to an ambient level ... These are natural elements, we don't use any chemicals," Miller said Wednesday during a tour of the mine.
"We've considered ourselves 'green' (environmentally-friendly) miners," Miller said.
Miller aimed criticism Wednesday at the South Yuba River Citizens League.
The Nevada City-based environmental group sent letters asking to be a party to Friday's hearing. A Feb. 19 letter from SYRCL attorney Larry Sanders suggested that the agency's board should refer the matter to the state Attorney General's office for possible fines and criminal prosecution.
Sanders backed away from that position Thursday.
"From what I know right now, it does not sound like they deserve prosecution," the SYRCL attorney said.
That's because the proposed permit doesn't take into account a change in the 16-to-1 Mine's operations. The mine used to operate a mill that ground up ore, adding arsenic to the discharge water, but "they stopped running their mill," he said.
"We agree with them that the new permit should be more tailored to what they're actually doing there," Sanders said.
Miller showed up Sunday for a two-hour talk about SYRCL's volunteer river-monitoring plan. Then on Tuesday, he went to SYRCL's office to look through its files to see the monitoring results.
SYRCL sampled water in the Middle Yuba River at the Foote Crossing bridge, but not one sample was above the 10 parts per billion standard for arsenic.
"These are all below drinking water standards," Miller said Wednesday of SYRCL's samples from the Middle Yuba, the highest of which recorded 8.3 parts per billion of arsenic.
"It doesn't dilute down to nothing," Sanders said. "Arsenic is a known human carcinogen. There is a great deal of evidence that the mine, in the past, has caused water quality problems in Kanaka Creek."
Asked how the mine could reduce arsenic in the discharge, or how much it might cost, Sanders replied, "That I don't know. (But) there are ways to abate pollution coming out of old mines."
Miller said the 19-employee gold mine is the largest private employer left in Sierra County since the closure last year of Sierra Pacific Industries' timber mill in Loyalton.
"We're just surviving by our fingertips," said Miller, due to factors including the low price of gold.
He said the monitoring plan proposed under the new state permit would cost about $64,000 annually, which the mine can't afford. He pointed out that SYRCL gets grant money to help fund river monitoring from Proposition 204, the $1 billion Clean Water Act that California voters approved in 1996. SYRCL got $190,824 in Proposition 204 money for three years of river monitoring.
"If they've got all this grant money, then give us the money to treat it," Miller said.
Millers feels there's an effort afoot to curtail mining, logging and ranching.
"This is like a cleansing of rural America, that's what it is," he said.
Reporter for The Union