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Relic of a Lost Era, Gold Mine Strikes Only Trouble Now

Owner, charged in a fatal accident, says the Old West is being killed off.

November 11, 2002|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

ALLEGHANY, Calif. — To hear some tell it, Michael Meister Miller's fight is the Mother Lode's last stand.

Since 1896, his mine, the Sixteen to One, has yielded some of the state's densest gold concentrations. Mined today much as it was a century ago by mud-caked men with picks, drills and dynamite, it is a living link to California's Gold Rush era.

For some, the Sixteen to One evokes the gritty pageantry of the '49ers. To others, it is a throwback to a reckless time of needless injuries to people and the environment.

Today, after the death of a miner, that way of life is on trial -- not just in the court of public opinion, but in the Sierra County Courthouse where Miller and his mine manager face manslaughter and other felony charges.

The indictments of Miller, 60, and 32-year-old Jonathan Farrell mark only the third time that felony charges have been brought against individuals under a 2-year-old labor law for "willful violation of a safety standard" that results in death.

The case has divided a county that still clings to its mining roots despite the industry's decline and a steady trickle of newcomers who don't rely on the region's traditional sources of income -- logging and mining -- or profess much nostalgia for its fading way of life.

These days, local businesses in the county seat of Downieville, about an hour and a half northeast of Nevada City, are more dependent on mountain bikers and other recreational tourists. Expatriates from Truckee, Tahoe and Reno drive up property values. The shift is aligning the county more closely with a modern California -- one defined by tough environmental and workplace protections.

"Miller was born 70 years too late," said Brian Van Camp, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge and former Sixteen to One board member. "If you're going to extract minerals in the regulated civilized community, you're going to have to abide by a whole lot of rules. Yes, they didn't have them back then and it was easier, but things have changed."

The Sixteen to One is among about a half-dozen underground hard-rock mines still operating in California, and the only commercial gold mine left in a county that owes its origins to mining.

While low gold prices, industry consolidation and cumbersome regulations have driven off most small subsurface operators, Miller thumbs his nose at the odds and the regulators. He and his men dig for gold the old-fashioned way -- in 27 miles of dank tunnels braced by wooden beams erected nearly 100 years ago. These days, profits are so meager that neither Miller nor his skeleton crew are drawing salaries.

State and federal regulators have cited the mine more than 180 times over the last decade for faulty escape routes, broken ladders, improper storage of explosives. State water quality officials have fined the company for allowing arsenic-laden water to flow into nearby Kanaka Creek, polluting the downstream drinking supply.

The manslaughter charges stem from the death two years ago of miner Mark Fussell, 36.

Fussell was operating a locomotive deep in the mine and had put it in reverse to retrieve some lumber. His head was crushed between the locomotive's battery and an ore chute that investigators say protruded lower than others in the mine and was unmarked. They also allege that the gears malfunctioned and that the locomotive had been placed on the track backward.

The mine had been cited previously for not marking a similar ore chute on a different level of the mine. That opened the door for prosecutors to file felony charges against Miller and Farrell.

An arraignment is scheduled for Nov. 20.

The prosecutor, Gale Filter, explained the decision to charge Miller and Farrell and not just the company that controls the mine.

"The bottom line is corporations don't make decisions, individuals do," said Filter, who heads the California District Attorneys Assn.'s worker safety project. "We prosecute only the most egregious type of conduct," Filter added.

Miller called the case "meritless," saying it was Fussell's job to mark hazards, like the one that killed him, and blamed the miner's death on his own negligence.

"Mark had a lapse of what I call the fool killer," Miller said.

Neither Miller nor Farrell was present during the incident. Moreover, a state inspector had stood beneath the same chute a week earlier and failed to notice a hazard, Miller said.

If he can be charged with killing his worker under those circumstances, said Miller, the industry is headed for trouble.

"There are people who feel that California will be a better place without the ability to produce gold, and they'll use any means to try to accomplish that," Miller said.

Here in Sierra County, part-time prospectors still dredge the rivers for gold and work small, private claims. A sign in the office of the county's weekly newspaper declares: "We Support the Mother Lode Miners and the American Mining Industry and They Support Us."

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