SACRAMENTO - A state agency's board unanimously issued a cease-and-desist order Friday against California's only working underground, hard-rock gold mine.
The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered the 16-to-1 Mine to immediately cease discharge into Kanaka Creek, a Middle Yuba River tributary, due to arsenic and other concerns. The order took effect immediately.
But Robert Schneider, the water board's chairman, said the board has worked with industry before and doesn't want to see the mine go out of business.
"I think the board is very open to reconsideration," he said, once the mine is in compliance with the water board's orders.
The water board's directors also approved a strict new permit which will require the mine's discharge to meet drinking water-quality-standards for arsenic.
The mine has $28,000 in unpaid fines; the board referred that to the state Attorney General's Office for investigation and possible civil, but not criminal, prosecution.
Those unpaid fines and the fact the mine hasn't done any water sampling for three years undercut the case the mine's supporters made to the water board.
"I keep looking at the three years when the tests weren't done," said Robert Schneider, water board chair.
During a 21/2 hour hearing, about half a dozen mine supporters spoke, as did representatives of two environmental groups.
The mine supporters said the 19-employee mine is Sierra County's largest private employer and argued that the discharge is simply a trickle of spring water that seeps through the 100-plus-year-old mine, picking up naturally occurring arsenic.
"The effluent coming out of the mine is literally a fraction of the creek's flow in both the summer and the winter," said Jason Burke, a 1996 University of California, Berkeley graduate who was the mine's former chief engineer.
He said the new permit would require the mine's discharge to have less arsenic than the creek already contains. Other old mines discharge into Kanaka Creek, giving it an "ambient" or background arsenic level of 13 parts per billion - which is higher than 10 parts per billion required for the mine's discharge under the new permit, Burke said.
The South Yuba River Citizens League, a Nevada City environmental group had sought possible criminal charges against the mine in a Feb. 19 letter. But the group backed off Friday and asked the water board to suspend any action for at least a couple months.
"We wish to step back from the comments in my letter of Feb. 19 and recommended that the board take no action at this time," said SYRCL attorney Larry Sanders.
The mine is no longer operating a mill to grind up low-grade ore, which added arsenic to its discharge. The new permit doesn't take that into account, but is written as if the milling still takes place.
"We feel that it's very important that the right permit be written," Sanders said.
In response to a question from a water board member, SYRCL ecologist Lynell Garfield said that in 2001, SYRCL volunteer river monitors tested Kanaka Creek seven miles downstream of the mine for arsenic and found 42 parts per billion in October, 32 parts per billion in November, and 11 parts per billion in December, 2001.
Another environmental group took a less compromising position.
Bill Jennings, the Stockton-based "DeltaKeeper" said the mine had thumbed its nose at the state by not paying a $20,000 fine imposed in 1997 for violations, including discharging fine material into Kanaka Creek and the North Fork Kanaka Creek causing the streambed to be covered with silt.
The 16-to-1 Mine also owes $7,600 in unpaid fines and fees, said Elizabeth Thayer, the water board engineer overseeing the case.
Jennings said, "Essentially, (mine officials) have told this board to flake off. If they get away with it, it (will) encourage others."
Mine officials didn't speak about the fines during the hearing.
But before the meeting, Cindy McGaw, the secretary of the mine corporation, said the mine sent a letter in May 2000 saying, "We can't afford to pay the fine (due to) financial difficulties."
And the state Attorney General's office didn't respond back until a few weeks ago, on Feb. 19, she said. Prior to that, the mine fought the fine, a battle which ended in March 1999, when the mine's appeal was finally rejected in Sierra County Superior Court.
The mine was required to sample and test discharge under a permit issued in 1995. Earlier this week, Mike Miller, the mine's chief executive officer, said the mine stopped testing water in January 1999, when it underwent a temporary shutdown, laying off 40 employees.
"We laid everybody off and quit running the mill," he said. "We cut the tests back and notified the water (board) ... They didn't get back to us. I call it tacit approval."
Miller has said the mine is struggling to survive and can't afford the $63,000 it would cost to monitor water under the new permit.
Miller dominated Friday's hearing, in terms of time spent talking. The board allotted him 25 minutes, more than anyone else.
He sprinkled his talk with comments such as, "I've never had a fair hearing before the water board before" and "The things that I've heard here, they are so far from the truth."
He also suggested that two staff members were "incompetent." At one point, Miller announced he was taking off his shirt, which he did, to reveal a 16-to-1 Mine T-shirt underneath.
Miller's performance didn't go over well with some board members.
"I'm sorry you had to sit through that," board member Beverly Alves told the water board staff people whom Miller criticized. "I apologize." She was among the first board members to vote against the mine when the votes were called.
Also supporting the mine Friday was Dan Dellinger, district representative for State Senator Rico Oller, who represents Sierra County.
"We're just really concerned about the whole job thing," Dellinger said. "They're the largest (private) employer in Sierra County. Sierra County can't afford to lose any more jobs."
Don Russell, publisher of the Mountain Messenger, a Downieville-based weekly newspaper, also spoke on behalf of the mine.
"When you guys come up, you come up as cops," Russell said. "We'd like to urge the board to work with the mine."
Michael Clark, a Santa Cruz man who described himself as one of the mine's 1,100 stockholders, also urged the board to cooperate with the mine to find a solution.
"Even if the mine were closed, it would still discharge the same amount of water," Clark said. He said other old mines on Kanaka Creek discharge water and he urged the state to help develop some sort of "inexpensive, passive control to filter out arsenic."
Reporter for The Union