DENVER - State regulators slapped a $10,000 fine on Wildcat Mining Corp. on Wednesday for operating a mine without a permit in La Plata Canyon.
The Mined Land Reclamation Board also turned down Wildcat's permit application, but it left the door open to issuing a new permit in the future.
The decision extends the legal odyssey that began in 2006, when Wildcat bought property near Mayday with plans to reopen the old Idaho gold mine and mill. The company got a mining permit in 2007, but it was revoked last year when Wildcat failed to post a bond.
The board's staff cited Wildcat for breaking state mining laws in November after the company built a road to its mine despite its lack of a mining permit. The road is unstable and cuts into a steep hillside full of loose rocks, said Kate Pickford, the board's Durango-based inspector.
On Wednesday, the board fined Wildcat $10,998 for that road. But it will suspend $5,000 of the fine if Wildcat cooperates by posting a new bond and submitting a new plan for the site to state regulators. The board gave Wildcat 30 days to post a $56,233 bond to cover the road.
The seven members of the mining board struggled to decide whether to reject outright Wildcat's permit or allow the company to amend the permit it lost last year.
At one point, they went into a secret session for less than 10 minutes to get legal advice from the board attorney.
The board's staff recommended that it both sanction Wildcat and approve the permit application, in order to get the company to post a bond and come under stricter state regulation.
"The bottom line is, we're trying to get the disturbance bonded and corrected," said David Berry, director of the Office of Mined Land Reclamation.
Berry's staff has been concerned since Wildcat arrived in summer 2006 and started to work on its mill, even though it didn't apply for a mining permit until that fall, he said.
"There has been a lot of work done at the site under the guise of a private property owner doing maintenance," Berry said.
Berry worried that an outright denial of the permit would lead San Diego-based Wildcat to walk away from the operation without cleaning it up, but a new permit would provide incentive to Wildcat to "play ball" with state regulators.
But board member Mike King argued against approving the application.
"I have an uncomfortable sense that this operator has, intentionally or not, used the old maxim that it's easier to get forgiveness than permission," King said.
In the end, the board voted 7-0 to reject the permit application, but it told Wildcat to resubmit its application within six months. However, the new road might put Wildcat over the 10-acre limit for its rejected permit, so the company might have to start the process all over by applying for a higher class of permit with stricter oversight.
Brent Chicken, Wildcat's attorney, said company owner Mike Clements has tried to do the right thing from the start.
"It's been a very difficult struggle. I know Mr. Clements personally, and he's stressed out and at the end of his rope. It's 2½ years and not one grain of ore," Chicken said.
Several Mayday residents gathered at neighbor Scott Collignon's house to participate by phone.
Collignon said the $56,233 bond isn't enough to ensure the road is fixed.
"They've come up here and done nothing but destruction. This road they've built is a nightmare," Collignon said.
Chicken said the new road wouldn't have been necessary if the Forest Service hadn't block-ed access on an existing road. The new road sits on private property leased to Wildcat, he said.
Clements, who participated by telephone, said his road will have important public-safety benefits by providing emergency access to the upper canyon.
"This whole town could burn down if there was a fire up there in La Plata Canyon on the east side of the river," Clements said.
In addition, a bridge Wildcat built is a perfect spot to rescue someone who is caught in the river. That comment brought guffaws from the Mayday residents on the telephone, who know the river often runs at a trickle.
Board chairwoman Catherine Kraeger-Rovey yelled "Stop!" to quiet the laughter. "I'll suspend this meeting until the people on the phone stop laughing!" she said.
Clements said he will continue to push for Forest Service access, even if his new road is approved by the state and county.
Clements said his failure to post the bond was an oversight. He didn't think he could use a state permit as long as he still was waiting for county approval.
La Plata County staff members are reviewing Wildcat's new road. The county also has the authority to approve milling operations at the mine and to enforce noise ordinances.
As the hearing was ending, Clements said he doesn't understand how he can post a bond for a permit that hasn't been approved. Pickford said she'd discuss it with him later.
In an interview after the hearing, Collignon said it unfolded mostly as he expected. Lisa Giovanniello, who was on the conference call, said neighbors will keep following the county and state permit process, and some of them might sue Wildcat for trespassing.
Mayday residents were still chuckling about Clements' bridge remark hours after the meeting.
"If you're drowning in the La Plata River, just stand up," Collignon said.