After six hours of testimony and debate Tuesday, Nevada County supervisors sent the Blue Lead Gold Mine use permit back to county planning staff for revisions and a groundwater study.
The county board declined to uphold or deny an appeal to the use permit approval granted Feb. 13 by Nevada County Planning Commission and instead voted 3 to 2 to continue the marathon public hearing and to ask for more work on the proposed project, about six miles east of Nevada City on Red Dog Road. The compromise decision didn’t fully appease neighbors in the Red Dog and You Bet neighborhoods who had filed the appeal and who wanted the county to require a full environmental impact report. Neither did it please the Blue Lead Mine property owners, who wanted the county to deny the appeal as county staff had recommended.
“We’re not happy,” said Blue Lead Mine supporter Art Knadler.
Blue Lead Mine owner Cookie White said she and other principals have been working on the project for six years, and “we’ve done everything the county has asked us to do,” she said.
“This was approved 4 to 0 (by the Planning Commission),” she said. “Why is there all this hostility?”
Knadler and White were two of about two dozen people to testify at the hearing, held before a crowd of about 120 people.
Testimony appeared almost equally split between Blue Lead Mine proponents and opponents.
“The Planning Commission should have required a full EIR,” said Jane Pelton of Grass Valley. “A mining operation without a full EIR will be precedent-setting and would encourage other mines.”
Neighbors Michelle Belmonte-Lund and Sandy Jansen said it appeared that masses of landowners have already staked mining claims in the area and were using Blue Lead Mine as a “test case” to see if it gets approval, and they could follow suit.
“You need to look at the whole issue,” Jansen said to supervisors. “There are already 36 mining claims on the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) lands.”
She added that supervisors needed to “look at the potential cumulative impacts” of mass mining operations and the threat of creating a new “industrial mining district” in Nevada County.
“CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) says you have to look at the cumulative impacts,” Jansen added. “Sorry, that’s the law.”
But supervisors declined to add in a requirement for any study of cumulative impacts after Nevada County Counsel Alison Barratt-Green said the cumulative impacts could only be calculated from existing projects or permit applications.
“Anything beyond that is speculative,” Barratt-Green said. “And CEQA doesn’t require us to be speculative.”
In addition to the groundwater study to include monitoring of neighboring wells, supervisors asked staff to increase the requirement for inspections from annually to quarterly and to require the applicant to begin a noise study immediately upon start of the project.
Noise, water supply and lack of notice about the planning commission hearing were the main complaints cited in the appeal.
“Staff should have made a water budget,” said Randy Fuller, one of about 10 appellants. “Those ponds (at Blue Lead Mine) hold 5 million gallons — where will the water come from?”
Fuller and other neighbors said a water budget would quantify expected losses from evaporation, from moving water over to dusty roads and from drawing down wells on the mine site.
“I sat in at the public (supervisors) meeting today and heard the drought report,” said You Bet neighbor Bernie Zimmerman. “They’re talking about voluntary conservation measures and they’re also considering mandatory conservation measures.
“It’s ironic that nowhere in this (Blue Lead Mine) plan is any mention of drought,” he added. “No where is there a mention of a water budget.”
Supervisor Richard Anderson, who voted yes on sending the project back to planning, said he would like to see a water budget.
“I can find no analysis of the net water demand,” Anderson said. Supervisors Terry Lamphier and Ed Scofield voted no on the motion, but for different reasons. Scofield said he wanted the project to go forward without further studies. Lamphier said he wanted some type of study on how the mining’s impact on soil, earth and rock will affect toxic water runoff drainage patterns.
Charles Watson, consulting geologist on the project, said all the runoff would be contained within the property and the toxic chemicals — primarily mercury — will be removed. But Lamphier said altering the topography could change whether the drainage is contained.
“We’re talking about a permit to change the landscape in Nevada County,” Lamphier said. “This is an opportunity to create wealth in our county; we should do it right.”
Supervisor Hank Weston voted in favor of sending the project back, as did Supervisor Chair Nate Beason.
Beason said a representative of the Nevada Irrigation District told him there was no way to determine the depth of a water table, given the fractured rock aquifer such as exists in the Red Dog and You Bet neighborhoods. But Beason said he was willing to undergo further tests because the water and noise issues were critical to neighbors.
“I am confused,” Beason said at one point. “Is a noise study required or isn’t it?”
Planning Director Brian Foss said the staff did not do a noise study because they were able to show that the distances from property lines of nearby residences were far enough that sound levels would not exceed maximum decibel limits. The existing plan had called for noise issues to be addressed and mitigated on a case-by-case, complaint-driven basis.
Watson said he would have a hard time doing a noise study if the mining machines were not turned on, but he said starting up the noise study immediately at the project launch — instead of waiting for complaints — would be doable. Watson said the project will only draw down 20,000 gallons of water a day from the mine site’s wells The three surface ponds would be recycled to use about 650,000 gallons of water a day.
Bob White, Blue Lead Mine property owner, said plans such as his would reclaim forest land destroyed by prior mining operations using anti-environmental methods.
“The entire history of mining includes devastated and dangerous sites that have been ignored for 100 years,” he said. “Our goals are pretty simple, “We’re using placer mining — not open pit, not hydraulic, not underground — and we will reclaim the property.”
But Belmonte-Lund said Chester-based Advanced Geologic Exploration, the firm run by Watson, was advertising mining claims for sale on its website.
“They want to turn our quiet forest into an industrial mining district,” she said, reflecting on a March 28 town hall meeting where Watson was a speaker. “This is a test case.”
To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4239.
This story was updated on Thursday, April 10, 2014 to correct Jane Pelton’s first name.