A controversial proposal to determine the vested mining rights to 735.98 acres in Indian Valley, proposed for open-pit mining, has been continued to Dec. 13.
Graham kept the public comment period open, acknowledging the interests of the 30 people who attended the Oct. 11 public hearing as well as those joining through Zoom.
US Copper Corps has asked Graham to determine whether the Canadian-based company has the constitutionally protected property rights to operate on the approximately 13 square miles of land it controls at Engels Mine 11 miles northeast of Greenville. If approved, the Moonlight project is expected to operate an open-pit mine for 17 years, with an anticipated 1.3 billion pounds of copper removed.
After reviewing the documents submitted April 23 by EnviroMINE, Assistant Planning Director Becky Herrin found that the companies have a vested right to continue mining operations in the area 12 miles northeast of Greenville.
“This process follows state law as well as county codes Section 9-5.05,” said Becky Herrin.
A decision Dec. 13 would start a 10-day period allowing an appeal of the decision to the Board of Supervisors.
Reclamation plan required
A person or company with vested rights must get county approval of a reclamation plan covering the mined lands disturbed by surface mining. They must also comply with all regulations of the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1975 (SMARA) as well as state regulations, including the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), said Herrin.
A vested mining operation is also required to meet financial assurances requirements, federal and state endangered species laws, and regulations under the federal Clean Air and Clean Water acts.
Warren Coalson, representing US Copper Corp, noted that the Zoning Administrator hearing is not a land use hearing.
“This is a hearing to adjudicate a historical fact-gathering exercise on the property under question. This is just the beginning of the process. There will be a later time for the public to voice their concerns,” Coalson said.
Still, many at the hearing raised objections to the mining proposal.
“This may not be the place, but I believe it is the time,” said Devin Cragg, Chester High School teacher and Indian Valley resident. “The earlier we let you know of our concerns in this process, the earlier we can address them. We can acknowledge the potential economic impact while still worrying about the environmental and social impacts.”
Graham encouraged the public to not allow their personal emotions on the matter cloud the facts. The purpose of the meeting, he said, was not to debate environmental or economic impacts but to conclude whether or not US Copper Corp holds vested mining rights to the addressed sites. If the process proceeds, he said, the public will have other forums where comments and concerns regarding the effects of open pit mining can be voiced.
Daniel Kearns, a Taylorsville resident, said he is concerned for the safety of his community’s health and the “permanent ramifications on the environment.” Based on the technical reports from 2018, the dust, debris and waste produced by the ore process will go into large ponds full of chemicals to further break down the material, Kearns said. Eventually the toxic chemicals will seep into the environment affecting Lights Creek, Indian Creek and on downstream to the Feather River, he said.
Dustin Moffet, of Genesee, encouraged the board to keep track of this project. This “foreign entity” should go through the permitting process and held “to a little more accountability, regardless if they have a vested right,” he said.
“A foreign corporation here in Plumas County should be kept with as many controls as possible. With a project of this scale, the Planning Department should have a tight rein on operations,” Moffet said.
Concerns about the county’s ability to handle this process were raised by Laura Kearns, of Taylorsville. She encouraged the board to seek help from outside entities if needed.
“Greenville residents are just now getting building permits to rebuild their homes… I see in our county as a whole being overburdened and request you to seek help so things are not overlooked,” she said.
Tracy Ferguson, Plumas County Planning Director, said she has requested additions to her staff for consultants with qualifications specific to mining laws and state environmental review processes.
Other concerns raised at the Zoning Administrator hearing focused on verifying the data presented by the mining companies and allowing enough time for review and verification.
Vested mining rights
Vested mining rights are passed down through land, not ownership. If granted, a 1958 ordinance would allow US Copper Corp to bypass certain permit processes due to the “grandfather” clause. The vesting year varies from mining operation to mining operation depending on either the county ordinance (established in 1958 in Plumas County) or the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA) of 1976) which ever came first. Unless an owner issues a letter of intent to abandon the vested rights, those rights are “active,” regardless of mining status on property, according to the regulations. Once the parcel is vested, a legal precedence is set allowing the mining company to move away from their original target location, making a larger area open to potential mining, the regulations allow.
Mining Operations in the Moonlight region began in the 1880’s. The Engles Copper Mining Company was founded in 1901. Since then the owners have never waived or abandoned their vested rights, grandfathering them into the first county ordinance, adopted by the Board of Supervisors in Plumas County on July 8, 1958 (Section 61312.a.3)
In 2012 Planning Director Randy Wilson granted vested rights to Turner Excavation for sand and gravel operations on Parcel 007-080-004-000. The Lake Almanor-based company is currently running a Number 10-Level Mine, a sand and gravel operation, and vested aggregate source. The applicants’ case is further strengthened by a 2022 letter issued by the Plumas County planning director agreeing that the aggregate site was vested. Staff review of permit records dating from 1957-1981 did not reveal any use permits issued for the properties for mining activities or purposes.
If the Zoning Administrator determines that vested rights exist, the owner\applicant may proceed with preparation of a reclamation plan application, which will then be submitted to the county for review. This reclamation plan must meet all requirements of state law and Plumas County Code Title 9, Chapter 5. A reclamation plan approval is a discretionary project subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and an environmental document meeting the legal requirements of CEQA will be required. Public participation in this review is ensured under Plumas County code requirements as well as the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act.
US Copper Corp, a Canadian based mining company, sent the original request to determine vested rights for numerous Assessor Parcels to Plumas County’s Planning Department on April 26, 2023. Two months later an amended request was submitted on June 27, 2023, which reduced the number of properties for the determination of vested rights to 2 properties: Assessor Parcel 007-080-004-000 and 007-090-003-000 (Moonlight and Superior mines), with the intent to reserve the right to request a vested rights determination of the properties involved in the original request at a later date.
For more information about this mining proposal, exhibits at the counter of the county Planning Department include background information, also available at https://www.plumascounty.us/2180/Zoning-Administrator.com.