By Lauren Westmoreland
The mine property, just north of the city of Portola, is owned by TLT Enterprises LLC. The project, which includes asphalt and rock-crushing plants, would be operated by Hat Creek Construction.
The proposal, as it is currently written, would expand the mining operation, dramatically increasing the amount of material to be mined and the acreage from 10 acres to 256 acres.
The Zoom event was moderated by League President Jane Braxton Little, who included an explanation of the county process for considering Thompson’s application for approval in brief at the opening of the panel at 6:30 p.m.
Panelists included mine applicant Perry Thompson, representing Hat Creek Construction, and citizen Linda Judge, representing community opposition to the project.
Opening statements from opposition: Linda Judge
Each party had the opportunity to make an opening statement before responding to questions submitted by the public.
Linda Judge introduced herself with thanks to the League for hosting the event. Judge recently moved to the Mohawk Vista area due to her love for the area and the chance to enjoy living in a “scenic and unspoiled environment,” and is an attorney with a background in environmental chemistry. Judge is also half of a pro-bono attorney team that is representing the opposition to the Hat Creek construction proposed industrial mine complex.
“I’ve visited and loved this part of the Sierras since I was a teenager, and last year we were very fortunate to purchase a home here,” Judge said. “We chose this location because of the natural beauty, unspoiled environment, rural agricultural nature and sense of community that the Portola area has to offer.”
“If we had known that a large industrial mine might be operating in the community, we would have waited to buy our home,” she added. Judge went on to note that she had joined the Stop Portola Mine movement because of the mine’s location.
“We’re not opposed to mining or paving roads; however, we are disappointed by the location that Hat Creek has chosen. The property is currently zoned as a wildlife preserve and animal sanctuary,” Judge said.
Judge went on to describe the concerns of hundreds of residents located within 60-1,500 feet of the mine and added that some homes were within 100 feet of the mine site itself.
“What Hat Creek is doing is attempting to amend the 1989 Special Use Permit (SUP) for an essentially abandoned 10-acre sand and gravel mine that was operated by Jeff Carmichael, and they want to increase the size of the mine,” Judge said. “The Hat Creek special use permit, if approved, would allow activities that were not permitted in 1989 permit.”
Judge went on to state that the threats the mine posed to residents include “intolerable noise, increased air pollution, depleted well water, toxins in the well water, light pollution from night operations, and a significant increase in traffic on Highway 70.”
This was in addition to concerns over potential pollution ultimately ending up in the Middle Fork of the Feather River, as well as the effects to property tax values and tourism revenue, as well as increased expenses to the county and state due to increased traffic in the area.
Judge also spoke to the ecosystem in and of itself within the proposed project area, stating that this project would pose danger to the existing wildlife and wetland, flora and fauna existing in the area.
“The mining proposal states that the property would be reclaimed, and the ecosystem repaired at the end of 50 years, but that’s just not possible,” Judge said firmly.
Judge then spoke to concerns about jobs, stating that this proposal “would not bring jobs to the area,” with the project application noting that the site could remain inactive up to several months of the year.
“The loss of local jobs in construction, real estate, local businesses, and services for remote, internet-facilitated workers who have recently far outweighs the potential for jobs that the mine might create,” Judge said.
As of that day, an estimated 750 people had signed the Stop the Portola Mine petition, opposing the mine, with numbers increasing daily.
“Local residents are fearful about how this commercial mining operation in rural residential Portola will impact the community and their day-to-day lives,” Judge said, closing out her opening comments.
“We’re not opposed to mining or development if it is done in a way that is compatible with the location and it has reasonable controls. We cannot understand why Hat Creek has chosen to locate a 226-acre mine and an asphalt plant, feet away from homes, wells, and Portola city limits.”
Hat Creek Construction: Perry Thompson
Moderator Little then introduced Perry Thompson as a fourth-generation Californian, who graduated from Chico State with a degree in Construction Management and a Minor in Business. Thompson spent eight years with Teichert Construction before moving back to the Redding area and joining with Hat Creek Construction, a family-owned business started by Thompson’s father and uncle.
Thompson and his cousin are now the owners of Hat Creek Construction, Inc., and Thompson will be celebrating 32 years of marriage in June and has three children.
Thompson thanked the League for the kind introduction and for hosting the event before briefly giving a background on himself and his company.
“I grew up in the Hat Creek area, and we are a small, 49-year-old family business that was started by my father and my uncle in 1972. My wife and I, as well as my cousin and his wife, currently own Hat Creek Construction and TLT Enterprises,” Thompson said.
“Our company core values are teamwork, respect, pride in our work, and community. We invest in the people and the communities that we serve.”
Thompson went on to explain that Hat Creeks’ core focus was “always people, always quality, always growing,” also noting that Hat Creek Construction company had just recently won its first national award for a project on South Lake Road, just west of Bishop, which his team was very proud of.
Because of that award, Hat Creek Construction was featured on the covers of Roads and Bridges magazine this past February 2021.
“Why are we permitting a mine near Portola — I thought I could just cut to the quick here since that is what tonight’s meeting is about,” Thompson said. “We’ve always done work in and around this area. Most recently, you’ve likely seen us on Highway 70 between Beckwourth and Chilcoot, or on Highway 284 paving up to Frenchman Lake.”
Thompson explained that for all these projects, the asphalt that people saw being used was being sourced from Reno, Nevada. “That should upset people that live in the area,” Thompson said.
He then stated that the asphalt coming from Reno equated to more trucks on the road, and that the payroll and support dollars were going to Reno as well.
“Linda had some good points about wanting to grow the community, and I think that’s a real issue,” Thompson went on. “I know that between 2000 and 2010 Portola actually lost people. It is hard to grow an economy when people are leaving the area.”
Thompson then stated that the problem is that the Portola and Sierra Valley area has virtually no asphalt grade aggregate with long-term permits and abundant reserves.
“I know because I have visited every pit and drilled all over the area to try and find asphalt speck rock,” he said. “We drilled at the Carmichael pit as a last resort and were amazed to find some of the best rock I have found in my 30-year career.”
Thompson then went on to express that the location was “an existing permitted mine with safe two-lane paved access to Highway 70 and is located next to an old landfill that operated for 47 years and closed seven years ago.”
Thompson said that he acknowledged the fact that there will be some who will remain opposed to the project no matter what is said, and that is their right.
“What I am referring to here is just using some common sense when you’re thinking about how much asphalt you see going down in Portola and surrounding areas. Minimal asphalt. The project between Chilcoot and Beckwourth took about 70,000 total tons of asphalt to complete, and that was a $17 million job,” he explained.
Thompson then said, “The intent of this pit is to be a project-specific pit. We could potentially also move on to sell small amounts of rock to the community if there is a need.”
Project application timeline
Little thanked Plumas County Planning Department Zoning Administrator Tracey Ferguson for providing a timeline document March 10 to give an overview of the timeline of the project, with the document being available at the Plumas County website.
The initial application was documented on Nov. 17, 2020, with a request to amend the Special Use Permit (SUP) following the next day, Nov. 18, 2020.
During the preliminary review process, every discretionary application submitted to the planning department is then sent to agencies with permitting authority and other responsible parties under state law and county code. During this period, the county also requests any information be provided regarding type and content of the environmental review document that may be required under state statutes and guidelines.
The preliminary review period for the permit to mine and reclamation plan, as well as the amendment to the existing SUP applications ended on Jan. 18, 2021.Some agencies requested, and were granted, additional review time.
Agencies that have responded, as of Wednesday, March 10, are the City of Portola, Plumas-Sierra Counties Department of Agriculture, Plumas County Department of Environmental Health, Plumas County Department of Public Works, Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District (NSAQMD), the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (Central Valley Water Board), and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).
Other agencies include the California Department of Conservation, Division of Mine Reclamation (DMR), the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), and the United States Forest Service, Plumas National Forest, Beckwourth Ranger District.
The written response received by the Plumas County planning department on Jan. 21, 2021 from the Division of Mine Reclamation indicated the reclamation plan amendment did not meet the contents requirements of the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA).
This means that the permit to mine and reclamation plan application is currently deemed incomplete. According to the county, the applicant, Hat Creek Construction, is now working to resubmit the required information.
“The county has received over 200 public comments on the project, which have all been entered into the project record. The county will continue to accept public comment throughout the process, and up, and until the close of the Zoning Administrator public hearing,” Little read aloud from the transmittal.
Once the permit application is deemed complete, any revisions to the project are provided by the applicant and the project description is finalized, then county planning staff could prepare an initial study under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). An Initial Study takes the form of a checklist provided in CEQA guidelines that indicates various categories of impacts to be evaluated.
A Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) is prepared if there are potentially significant impacts that can be mitigated to a less than significant level by imposing project-level mitigations.
If the initial study were to determine that there are potentially significant or significant impacts resulting from the project, an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) must then be prepared.
Once prepared, there are statutorily set time periods for public review and comment. CEQA documents are posted on the county website, made available at the Plumas County Planning and Building Services office, and may be made available at the county public libraries, if open to the public at that time.
The timeline for preparation and review of the environmental document is entirely dependent on the type of document determined to be necessary.
The choices are up to Hat Creek at this point, Little said. “They will now have an option to prep the materials that the planning department deems appropriate, and once everything is in, the zoning administrator will have a public hearing that could be as far as a year from now.” Once the zoning administration issues a decision, that decision is appealable to the Board of Supervisors.
The first question directed towards Thompson was how far the mine is from City of Portola limits, how far from the nearest house, and roughly how many residences are within a mile of the proposed site.
Thompson answered that the mine is approximately 2,500 feet from city limits, and about 2,000 feet from the property corner. He also stated that the nearest house was about 700 feet away from the mine processing area to the south, and he counted about 350 residences within a mile.
Thompson then showed an asphalt processing plant in Santa Clara, stating that there were nearly 4,000 homes within a mile of that plant.
Judge responded, stating that the mine is contiguous to the City of Portola, and that 1,500 people live within a mile of the mine. “I think showing the mine in Santa Clara, which is in the middle of Silicon Valley, surrounded by industrial and high-density housing, is not a valid comparison to Portola,” Judge said.
Judge also noted that there are 1,000 city residents between 1.2 and 1.8 miles from the mine, and that within the sphere of the mine, there are 2,500 residents of the community that would be impacted by mining activity. The closest house, from a personal visit, is 60 feet to the fence line, Judge said.
This statement was swiftly refuted by Thompson, who said that wasn’t true. “If you’re going from property line to property line, yes, it’s very close, but I’ve measured it myself,” he said. “It’s 700 feet.”
Property value concerns
The next question raised was related to how a mining operation could affect property values in Portola and surrounding areas, with Little going under the understanding that the proposal was for a 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a-year mining operation.
Judge opened with the fact that 37 realtors from the Plumas County Realtors Association have come out in opposition to the proposal, with at least five real estate transactions and one residential construction project put on hold due to the potential for the mining project.
“There’s a major concern,” Judge said. “This is also a concern to the homeowners and to the county, who would all be affected by the loss of real estate value and tax revenue. People are not moving here to be in the back yard of a commercial mining operation.”
Thompson was given the opportunity to respond, stating that he understood people being concerned about their home values. “We chose that site because it has great rock and 715 acres. Based on community feedback, we’re planning on scaling back the size of the mine from 225 acres down to around 95 acres,” he said.
“That will leave more than 600 acres as a buffer around the mine area,” Thompson explained. He also refuted the earlier claim that the mine would be a 24-hour, 365-days-a-year operation once again. “I think initially we asked for 60 days of 24-hour operations in the permit, and we would only do night work when it is contractually required by CalTrans.”
Thompson said that the request has since been scaled back to 45 days a year of nighttime operations and stressed that the language regarding night operations was only to ensure that Hat Creek could fulfill contractual obligations on the rare off-hours project.
“Typically, our operations are going for six to seven months, weather depending,” Thompson added. Judge noted that it was nice to hear of the attempts to scale back on the project, but that she was currently looking at the original application that had already been submitted and made public.
The issue of jobs
Little moved the panel to the topic of whether Hat Creek and the proposed project would bring jobs to the area, asking Thompson how many jobs could be anticipated for locals with the potential project.
Thompson started by pointing out that this would be a project mine, not a full-time operation, and stated that when mining, the Portola location would average about 10 employees on the mine site and up to 40 employees on the projects themselves.
Thompson then noted that when Hat Creek Construction took over the Ward Lake operation in 2009, almost all the employees lived in Shasta County around Burney, and that at their operation in Susanville, there were about 40 employees residing in Lassen County.
Judge commented on the seasonal nature of the work and said that this wouldn’t bring good jobs to the area. “These are not local jobs, and you may have your own employees that you’re going to bring in on these projects,” she said. “That’s the concern. You can say a number of jobs, but if the mine is as-needed, it’s not creating sustainable jobs.”
Little then interjected that as of December 2020, Plumas County’s jobless rate was 10.7 percent and Portola itself was at 6.4 percent against a national average of 3.7 percent. “Clearly we’re not job rich in this area,” Little said. “Is a job better than no job?”
Judge answered, stating potential impacts to the area with jobs that are more supportive to the community possibly being pushed out by a mining operation.
“We come here because it’s beautiful and unspoiled,” Judge said. “I bought a house here; other people will and are doing the same. The jobs that support a sustainable community are much better than transient mining jobs. We are also looking at balancing out the pollution, traffic, and other aspects that this could bring.”
Thompson responded to Judge, saying that he was honestly offended at the insinuation that they weren’t providing ‘clean jobs’ and that the ‘community didn’t want them here,’ adding that he felt that was Judge’s opinion, which she was entitled to.
“I want to remind everybody that Linda drives to work on paved roads,” Thompson said. “Paved roads have to happen somewhere. We need aggregates to facilitate modern living and infrastructure.”
Thompson also stated that his people take great pride in their work and earn significantly more in six to seven months of the year than many do in a full year of work. “We take great pride in managing best practices in how we operate our plants and quarries and take great pride in being engrained in the community for four generations.”
Plumas County needs roads
Little spoke to and acknowledged the need for road repair and upkeep within Plumas County itself, and that Hat Creek has been the major contractor in the area for some time now. She then posed the question of whether a local asphalt plant would reduce costs and ultimately contribute to better roads.
Judge noted the distances between other mines operated by the applicant and neighboring communities, saying, “We’re not against mining or road paving. The bottom line is, of course we know this needs to happen, and of course, we don’t object. The issue here is the location.”
Thompson acknowledged that if he could find this exact property with this exact rock in another location, he would love to do so, however, that just isn’t the case.
“At some point down the road there is going to be significant problems maintaining the roads, or maybe we’re okay with it coming from Reno and taking those dollars,” he said.
Thompson emphasized that his company is not “a polluter.”
“We are running propane, the cleanest possible fuel, and connecting to line power, so we aren’t running generators, we have committed to a 2011 and newer truck fleet and committed to carb compliant fleets as well. We take a lot of pride in that.”
Potential effects on water
Little asked Thompson to comment on the effect the operation might have on water, with the Sierra Valley Ground Water Management District finding that new wells being put in the valley over the last 10 years have been resulting in lower ground water, with some wells even running dry.
“Have you had a hydrological study done on the aquifer to assure nearby residents that the mine will not deplete their wells?” Little asked.
Thompson affirmed that he had and noted that the site is in the Humbug Valley water basin, not the Sierra Valley Ground Water district. “The county has asked us to conduct an analysis based on residents’ concerns, and that study is currently underway,” Thompson said.
Judge stated that she will be interested to see what the analysis includes, and that it was important to look at the drought conditions that have been going on in the area. “50,000 gallons a day is a significant amount of water,” she said.
Little then shifted to the related topic of wastewater, referring to the California Department of Wastewater checklist, which requires a demonstration of how surface and ground water will be protected from potential pollutants. “How are you going to manage drainage of wastewater and storm water from the mine?” Little asked Thompson.
Thompson noted that one consideration that the company had made thus far was to potentially bring in water from off-site, amongst other potential considerations, but they are first waiting to see the results of the hydrologic study that is in progress.
Thompson then responded to concerns about wastewater and storm water management, stating that there would be no wastewater generated on the project site from mine activities, and that all of the wash water would be retained on-site and allowed to percolate back into the groundwater.
“No chemicals are used on the wash process, and sediment is filtered out in the soil profile,” he said. “Storm water is regulated for mine sites by the general permit for storm water discharge and is administered by the regional water quality control board.”
The mine would be issued a permit under this order, which requires storm water to be managed under certain limits and requires the use of a list of BMPs, or best management practices, by the operator.
Thompson explained that there would be provision to store storm water on site in full compliance, and that he anticipated that their work would improve storm water discharges from the site.
Judge refuted with a comment about the Central Valley Water Regional Quality Control Board and their concerns with the claim that there would be no runoff from the site. She also noted that the only wells that appeared to have been surveyed thus far were commercial wells, not residential wells in the area.
“They are concerned about the water that will flow out and into Grizzly Creek from the sediment ponds and then into the Feather River and groundwater,” Judge stressed.
Judge also noted the potential water generated by the asphalt plant itself, and wanted further clarifications on what toxins, salt, and acidity changes might occur with such a project.
Thompson responded with the fact that his company works with various water quality districts daily, doing sampling at sites with high scrutiny on mines. “When we’re operating, we will not be discharging water,” he stressed.
Thompson then stated that he only chemicals that will be used on site are chemicals used to run equipment, such as diesel, oil, and hydraulic fluid, which would be placed in secondary containers on concrete slabs so that any chemicals do not dissipate into the soil. “We’ve never had a violation, and I take a lot of pride in how we treat the environment,” Thompson said.
Air quality concerns
Little moved to speaking about the air quality in the Portola area. The City of Portola and surrounding area have been in non-attainment for air standards, which are monitored by the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District (NSAQMD.)
Little noted that the area is still over state mandated limits, particularly in PM2.5 and PM10 particulates. She asked Judge to speak to how mining activities might affect air quality that is already acknowledged to be less than satisfactory.
Judge stated that this is one of the biggest concerns, and that the non-attainment in the area quality affects Portola and the entire zone, from Delleker to Blairsden and even portions of Lake Davis. “This has been going on since 2016, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had given the City of Portola and sphere of influence a deadline of December of 2021 to comply,” Judge said.
Judge spoke about the fact that the EPA had given NSAQMD $2.5 million towards the woodstove change-out program to help the area reach compliance. She also noted that when the air district looked at the mining application to check potential impacts to air quality, they felt the application was unclear.
“The air quality district used a very low nominal number to calculate increase and stated that Portola and the greater area would not be in EPA compliance with additional emissions from a mining operation,” Judge said. She also noted that this was not counting release of toxics, and concluded, “We do not want our air to be more polluted than it already is.”
Thompson responded that the company was already in the process of conducting significant air modeling and addressing potential ways to reduce any impacts on air quality with the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District.
There was also a possibility of moving the location of the asphalt plant itself.
“Our calculations say that we will not impact air quality, but this is something that the air board will ultimately rule on,” Thompson said.
He also highlighted that in response to this challenge, the project site intends to install line power from Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative (PSREC) to completely remove the need to utilize any diesel-powered generators.
Judge returned to the subject of the application with concerns about particulate generation, and Thompson said, “I think that the thing a lot of people are missing is that we are in the application stage. We have a lengthy application, and we spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars on the best environmental reviews we could possibly get in here.” Thompson went on to state that the reason that was done was because the company was very experienced in permitting and knew that “in order for a project to be accepted and understood by the community, you’ve got to be transparent.”
He said that the company had done all the early studies possible, and that Plumas County “had never seen anything remotely close to it, and were, in their own words, a bit intimidated by the size and completeness of the application.”
Thompson referred again to the fact that the company was currently engaged in the normal CEQA process and noted that the numbers provided were estimates that would be modified to be acceptable to the public and to meet any potential environmental issues that might arise.
“Yes, this may be the biggest application Plumas County has seen, but it’s the biggest commercial mining operation that they have ever had proposed, so of course it would be the largest application,” Judge said.
She went onto state that the Department of the Interior Division of Mines had deemed that portion of the application incomplete, and every agency had come back with a lot of comments and requested reports.
“The scale of the project and location requires way more than you’ve already done,” Judge said. “There’s a lot more information people need to see before people feel like you are answering their questions.”
Little then turned the discussion to address a topic that had recently come to her attention from circulated emails regarding alleged illegal drilling into the Portola aquifer without a permit, with photos that “raised questions about trust and integrity.”
Thompson addressed the topic, saying, “We brought in a drill as I noted in the opening statements. Drills are what you use in mine operations to determine where the better rock is. For Caltrans work, we are constantly drilling and testing areas to determine if the material is suitable to the high standard needed for those projects.”
Thompson then said, “We own the quarry and active use permit for the quarry, and we are legally allowed to drill on our own property in conjunction with normal mining operations.”
He noted that he had this was the first time he had had people trespass on company property to take photos and circulate them, and that was “something new that they are getting used to as well.”
Judge said that to her understanding from looking at the county ordinance, any drilling deeper than 20 feet requires a permit. “Apparently those holes were drilled around May and are still open,” Judge said. “I do agree with you that people shouldn’t be trespassing on your property, but there is also a valid concern if the regulation reads that any sort of drilling below 20 feet requires a permit.”
Thompson emphasized that he had gotten clearance in talks with the county earlier that day, stating that the intention of that permit is for core samples. “We’re not doing that- it’s four-inch diameter drills going an average of 80 feet deep, and they are currently left open but, if people are concerned about that being a safety issue and continue to trespass, we are happy to backfill those holes.”
Plans for increase to fire danger
Discussion turned to the potential for added fire danger to the area with the addition of a mining operation, with Judge noting that she would like to see safety issues be addressed with Calfire. “After last year, we are very concerned about the increased risk of fire danger,” Judge said.
Thompson stated that fire danger is something that the company is hypersensitive to and didn’t believe that their operations would pose any risk. He also stated that they would be working with Calfire and the Fire Safe council to adhere to best practices and safety measures that could be taken, such as a potential fire break to protect East Portola if requested.
Little asked Thompson what he would say to those who support industrial development, but feel that the location for this project is simply inappropriate.
“Again, I think we overstated the size of the project and we’re prepared to scale it back and is a normal process that happens through CEQA. I don’t feel this is an inappropriate location, and is currently a permitted mine,” Thompson rebutted.
Judge responded that it was of significant concern to hear talk of scaling back, with the worry that more might be asked for in the future. She also said that the location might be good for the rock, but none of the other mines Hat Creek operates flows into wetlands, adjacent to where people live, with air pollution problems to start.
Little moved into a final question to Judge as to whether any modifications to the project would make it acceptable to her, and Judge said that she couldn’t see how the mine could be operated with modifications to make up for the many points that had been raised that night.
“I just think it’s not the right location for a mining operation,” she said. “The rock and the money made from the mine should not be the overriding concern here.”
Thompson stated that he wished the site was not next to homes, but that “in life we don’t always get what we wish for,” and noted that this would be an excellent resource for the greater community.
“It’s very posh lately to try and close mines, but somebody has to stand up and say that there has to be roads to drive on. This site surrounds the dump for 46 years and we’re acting like this operation will ruin the world. We’re going to have to figure this out, but I’m not okay with all of the asphalt and aggregate coming from outside of our local communities.”
Thompson closed with stressing again that he had overshot the mark on the size of the application and asked for more than he needed due to past experience.
“In this application I didn’t want to have to worry about going back and asking for more, 20 to 50 years from now,” Thompson said. “The reality is that we do not know what the community of Portola and the surrounding Sierra Valley is going to look like 30 years from now.”
Thompson thanked everyone for their time, and acknowledged that he gets passionate about his business, and Judge reiterated that she remained in opposition to the location due to many factors, and that the community is united against the mine.
“We understand the need for jobs in and around Portola,” Judge said. “I would welcome the opportunity to talk with Mr. Thompson about alternative uses of your 715-acre property.”