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Moving sand is grounds for Opp Mine appeal

Does moving sand tailings extracted from a gold mine more than 80 years ago constitute mining?

That's the question the Jackson County Board of Commissioners will wrestle with when it considers an appeal by the Opp Mine owner of a county planning decision.

Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the matter Aug. 15 at 1:30 p.m. in the Jackson County Courthouse, 10 S. Oakdale Ave., Medford.

Mine owner Frank Hardin applied in April to the county for a permit to remove the sand to Merlin, where a firm would extract gold that remains in the tailings. The mine is on Jacksonville Reservoir Road, about a mile west of Jacksonville.

Planning Director Kelly Madding ruled that removing aggregate or mineral materials is considered mining. Removal would require a conditional-use permit under the land's woodland resource zoning.

"All we want to do is move the sand," said Hardin's attorney, Ross Day of Portland. "Nobody applying a common sense definition would call this mining. I can only hope that the county commissioners don't think anyone can say that moving a pile of sand is mining."

Day argued in his application that removal is not extraction. But Madding wrote that extraction does include removal under the county's land development ordinance.

The Opp Mine was a significant source of gold beginning in the 1860s and was considered the area's most successful mine. It was also the scene of the area's most deadly mining accident when an explosion in 1906 killed three miners and buried much of the mine. A stamping mill to process the ore led to the start of the sand pile about 100 years ago.

This is the third attempt in the past 20 years to reopen the mine. Earlier denials by the county led to two unsuccessful lawsuits, one for $50 million, being filed by the property owners.

Previous requests have proposed to gather gravel from the site for aggregate sales and to extract gold as an ancillary product, but recent spikes in gold prices have made gold extraction more attractive.

"I've owned the property for 22 years but so far they won't let me do anything with it except pay taxes," said Hardin. "I tried to meet all their conditions, but they just say, 'No, you can't do it.' "

An appeal would be made to Oregon's Land Use Board of Appeals if the commissioners uphold Madding's decision, Hardin and Day said.

Property owners on Jacksonville Reservoir Road and nearby Pair-a-dice Road and in the Kanaka Flats areas expressed concerns about truck traffic generated by potential operations at the mine during a 2007 zoning battle.

"We are concerned about a number of things: the traffic and what it might do to the water supply and the noise," said June Mather, who lives on Kanaka Flat Road near the mine. She plans to attend the hearing.

Neighbors have also worried about toxins potentially leaching from the sand into water supplies, said Day. Removal of the sand would allay that concern, he noted.

Federal Environmental Protection Agency and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality officials studied the site and did not recommend any clean-up action, said Hardin. He's had the sand tested by five different labs and all found no signs of contamination, he added.

Hardin estimated that sand removal would generate about eight truck trips per day. He anticipates removal would be done over a two-year period.

Trucks probably would be routed west to where Jacksonville Reservoir Road meets Highway 238 and go through the Applegate Valley rather than through downtown Jacksonville, said Hardin.

City officials and others have expressed concerns in the past about heavy trucks causing damage to the historical 1800s buildings that line California Street as they pass through the downtown area.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.