Owner pleads not guilty to Sierra mine charges

Apr 11, 2012, 12:36 AM

PLACERVILLE, Calif. (AP) – The co-owner of a gold mine in the Sierra foothills pleaded not guilty Tuesday to operating the mine illegally and causing environmental damage.

Joseph Hardesty entered the plea during his arraignment, said El Dorado County Deputy District Attorney Mike Pizzuti.

Hardesty, 55, is charged with grading the Gold Rush-era mine near Placerville, which is about 45 miles east of Sacramento. He also is charged with operating heavy equipment without permits, causing air pollution and allowing hazardous fluids to reach a nearby creek.

His attorney, William Brewer, did not return a telephone message seeking comment. Brewer previously said his client has a historic right to operate the Big Cut Mine on nearly 150 acres he bought in 2005.

The mine’s co-owner, 44-year-old Rick Churches, faces similar charges in a 24-count complaint. He did not show up for Tuesday’s arraignment, and Pizzuti said Superior Court Judge Douglas Phimister told prosecutors to prepare an arrest warrant for Churches.

The charges are the latest round in a three-year fight with state and local authorities over the mine in the Sierra foothills between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.

The mine’s operators also face state fines of more than $900,000. The fines were levied in January by the State Mining and Geology Board, a division of the California Department of Conservation.

Authorities say the men brought in millions of dollars’ worth of heavy equipment to cut into a steep ridge.

Inspectors say they found gold on a shaker table used to separate the heavy precious metal from sand and gravel laid down in an ancient riverbed that crosses the property. They say Churches told an inspector their goal was to mine gold and sell the gravel at a time when the price of gold was hovering around $1,700 an ounce.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Owner pleads not guilty to Sierra mine charges