Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press
PLACERVILLE, Calif. — California's Gold Rush was more than a century-and-a-half ago, but its Wild West spirit lives on in a dispute between government agencies and a landowner in the Sierra Nevada foothills that some officials describe as one of the most egregious cases of illegal mining they have ever encountered.
The dispute between local and state officials and the owner of the Big Cut Mine is coming to a head after a bureaucratic stalemate that has dragged on for three years, with the county district attorney filing 14 charges, including four felonies, and the state leveling fines approaching $900,000.
Authorities say the land owner has refused to comply with cease-and-desist orders, pay any fines or even to submit to an arrest warrant. He became a fugitive last week after failing to turn himself in as promised.
"What we don't see very often is a flagrant, a total disregard of the law," said Stephen Testa, executive officer of the State Mining and Geology Board. "This is an order of magnitude larger than what you would typically see. This is a full-blown surface-mining operation."
Land owner Joseph Hardesty contends that he has a historic right to operate the Big Cut Mine, which is on nearly 150 acres he bought seven years ago as the price of gold began to rise. Gold now hovers around $1,700 an ounce, an increase of about 470 percent from its price a decade ago. The run-up has prompted a feverish rush to tap former gold fields and rivers throughout the West, from established mining companies to weekend gold-panners.
In California alone, gold reported from small claims and the state's few commercial mines has increased more than six times as prices have spiked, from 30,155 ounces reported in 2006 to 198,946 ounces in 2010, the last complete year available.
Hardesty, his wife, Yvette, and his partner, Rick Churches, brought in bulldozers and other heavy equipment to cut into a steep ridge that has a history of gold mining activity. Locked gates covered with "no trespassing" signs block entrance to the property.
An Associated Press reporter and photographer were unable to gain access to the site during a recent attempt to visit, but surveyed the land from a forested ridge a few hundred yards away. From that vantage point, hillsides that had been scoured away were clearly visible.
The property is in a region of Northern California thick with gold mining history, partway between the state capital and Lake Tahoe.
Nearby Placerville — named after a type of gold mining — was once known as "Hangtown" for its rough handling of claim jumpers. The town is the seat of El Dorado County — "El Dorado" being the Spanish name for a legendary golden city — and is nine miles south of where gold was discovered. Placerville grew up along the main stage coach route between San Francisco, Sacramento and the Comstock Lode silver mines in Nevada, a route that today is Highway 50, a conduit for campers and skiers.
The Big Cut Mine is only about a mile-and-a-half outside Placerville, now a popular tourist destination, but seems like a world away. It can be reached only after driving narrow, winding roads over country that is thickly forested with few people.
Court filings hint at the land's past, saying it is reported to be the site of a rich vein of gold called "the Deep Blue Lead."
Joseph Hardesty's attorney, William Brewer of San Diego, denied that his client is mining gold and insists he wants to operate a sand and gravel business to complement another he owns in Sacramento County.
"He's not a crook, he's not a cheat, he's not doing anything illegal or immoral," Brewer said. "He's trying to do what he can to make a living."
Local and state inspectors tell a different story.
Last spring, they said they found gold on what is known as a "shaker table," a device used to separate the metal, which is heavy, from sand and gravel.
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