John Steinbeck's law describing the relationship of protection and despondency: "A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ." ("Travels with Charley")
Unlike the government agencies who regulate him perhaps more than anyone in the Free World, Michael Miller has a face. He also has a home made of stone and wood and other gifts of nature. He has learned to be resourceful.
Mike's home of nearly 30 years is tucked in a corner of a corner of the world that's called Alleghany. It's about an hour's drive from Nevada City, and it's also home to some 60 other residents, most of whom probably enjoy being tucked as far away from the rest of us as they can possibly be tucked.
The town generates just enough outgoing mail to keep a post office open. Most of that mail comes from Mike's Original 16-to-1 Mine. It's the oldest operating gold mine in North America and the only one left in California. That's great for marketing hype, but it also puts Mike's operation right in the cross hairs of every regulatory agency known to man. Hence his need to generate lots and lots of outgoing mail, addressed mostly to faceless government agencies with long acronyms.
Faceless government types get paid to generate lots of mail, most of it filled with government terms such as "cease and desist," or jargon specifically designed to confuse and distress its recipients, who really can't figure out from the government letters exactly what they are supposed to cease or desist. Mike and his 19 employees, on the other hand, get paid to generate gold. The kind of gold that built this Gold Country and this Golden State, the kind of gold that built a railroad connecting one end of our nation to the other.
I spoke with Mike my first week on the job here. He's been getting pounded by regulators more than usual lately, and it is coming at a time when Mike and his mine are nearly broke. Fighting regulators can be fun, but it can also be expensive.
He invited me out for a visit, and I gladly accepted that offer. I'm generally a visual person, and I like to put human beings to my stories, which is why I went to see Mike, rather than a faceless California Regional Water Quality Control Board (and I'll get to the water part of the story in a minute).
Besides, when you have a chance to visit the Gold Country's last working gold mine, you jump on it.
I met Mike in a rustic office inside a building that was once a theater or schoolhouse, I can't remember which. The gas stove warmed the place and kept the two office cats quite cozy.
Mike doesn't look like a miner. He looks more like an accountant who got tired of commuting and moved to a tiny corner of the world to play guitar or write poetry. You know the look. This area is crawling with it. Give me a month, and I'll look like that, too.
Putting on my mine-issued rubber boots and safety helmet (attached with a very cool light and battery), I learned that the 16-to-1 needs to provide at least 300 ounces of gold per month to keep the business afloat. I heard Mike later say his bills were roughly $90,000 a month, so you can do the math on that one.
Then we climbed into a metal cart and started our descent, a trip that would eventually take us 2,100 feet into the heart of the Alleghany Mining District. Not many have seen Mother Earth from the inside out.
In addition to his ongoing debates with the federal mining regulators, Mike has a running feud with the California Regional Water Quality Control Board. They say he needs to clean up the water running from his mine and into the nearby Kanaka Creek that eventually makes its way into the Yuba River and beyond.
Mike has no argument with that. He's got reams and reams of documents and reports and studies that show his water is as clean as any water in Kanaka Creek and beyond. In fact, he's got fish in his water, which leads one to conclude it might actually be better than the water inside a domestic fish tank.
"Government can be like a tortoise," said Mike, leading the way down a narrow, tracked tunnel. "When it sees a threat, it tucks its limbs inside its shell. And when it doesn't see a threat, it keeps plodding along anyway."
Somewhere around 8,000 feet, I bumped into a fellow named Jonathan. He's 31 and has been working the mine for eight years. He told me he was raised on the Yuba River and that he considered himself to be an environmentalist. "I'm a river rat," he boasted. "If I even thought we were polluting the river, I wouldn't be here. Lots of people worry about the planet. But we're intimately involved with it every day. When I'm not in the mine, I'm on the river."
Mike understands the need for rules and regulations, but says those who enforce them ought to be teaching rather than punishing. "They shouldn't just say, 'I found something, but I'm not going to tell you what it is.'" He believes some regulatory agencies write citations to justify their existence. "That's how they pay their bills," he said.
Meanwhile, Mike's own bills continue to mount. Toward the end of last year, the mine almost shut down. Most of the workers agreed to take additional time off and to work for minimum wage, knowing that if they found a good vein they'd be made whole.
Asked why he has often taken a confrontational position with his regulators, Mike said he has no choice. "This was thrust upon us," he said. "It's a matter of survival."
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