Meet the Miner Who Thinks He's Immune to Environmental Laws

By Paul Koberstein

and John Williams

Joseph Leonard Hardesty never met anenvironmental law he wouldn’t defy.

Local gravel miners Hardesty, 55, and his business partner, Richard David Churches, 44, have earned the unsolicited adoration of tea party activists across the country for their unrelenting contempt of government regulation.

Ultimately, however, defiance of the law comes at a price. Together, the miners face felony and misdemeanor charges in a 24-count criminal complaint in connection with violations—many of which impact two of Sacramento’s three rivers—of a wide variety of environmental statutes. They must also pay more than a million dollars in fines. Both have entered not-guilty pleas to the charges.

Hardesty, who lives in Elk Grove, has been disregarding mining regulations for as long as he has been in the business—now 32 years—state-mining-board documents show. He did not return this reporter’s several phone calls seeking comment on the allegations against him, but his San Diego attorney William Brewer says Hardesty “denies that he is polluting anything.”

But there is no denying that Hardesty has been indifferent to the consequences of his actions on the environment. For example, his mine in Sloughhouse, located some 20 miles southeast of downtown Sacramento, threatens to literally rip the guts out of the Cosumnes River.

His other mining operation, the Big Cut Mine in Placerville, another 30 miles to the east, has carried pollution and mining waste into the American River, a recreational mecca for thousands of Sacramentans.

Until his arrest on February 9, Hardesty had been free on probation (the result of a January 2011, conviction on one misdemeanor charge in an oil-spill incident at one of his mines), but a Sacramento County Superior Court judge revoked his probation on May 10. Further action on the probation violation has been stayed until after a pretrial hearing in El Dorado County on June 14.

If found guilty, Hardesty could be ordered to serve the remaining 364 days of his suspended sentence behind bars, plus whatever additional jail time is levied in El Dorado County.

As for Churches, he is free on his own recognizance. He will be tried alongside Hardesty. His attorney, Glenn Peterson of Sacramento, denied that Churches was engaged in any commercial gravel mining. “The mining activities have been limited to mining gravel for their own road,” he said.

A third partner, Daniel Tankersley, has not been charged.

The Fervent Practitioners

If you are curious how the tea party form of government might play out in the real world that exists beyond Washington, D.C., or Sacramento, consider Hardesty and Churches’ Thelma & Louise-style leap from reality.

This is not to imply that they are leaders in the tea party movement, or even followers, despite their countless fans who are. Like many of us, they are just regular Joes out to strike it rich. What makes them unusual is that they are not just true believers in the fringe group’s peculiar brand of political ideology.

They are fervent practitioners.

Judging by their actions, they appear to align more closely with the Gordon “Greed Is Good” Gekko wing of the tea party, rather than the Rick Santorum Christian evangelical wing.

As Kerry Shapiro, Hardesty’s San Francisco attorney, explains, Hardesty has simply been trying to exercise a right to mine that he believed was vested, or grandfathered, at his two mining sites, in part by a mineral certificate by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1876, which “extends to their heirs and assigns forever” that right. He believes that his “historic” mining rights also give him the right to ignore modern-day regulations to protect the environment.

But the state of California’s mining board and Sacramento and El Dorado counties, all determined in 2009 and 2010 that Hardesty held no vested rights at either mine. Hardesty’s theory that he is immune to environmental prosecutions surely will be tested in the upcoming trial.

“The Sacramento [County] Board of Supervisors took the vested right without notice to Mr. Hardesty,” his San Diego attorney, Brewer, said.

Despite the rulings that Hardesty held no vested mining rights, Hardesty continued to mine. He felt he needed no one’s permission to dig holes on his own properties or sell whatever he hauled out to the highest bidder. No need to worry about the impacts of the pollution he sent offsite.

Several local, state and federal agencies and some of his neighbors insisted he did, in fact, need the permits. They also allege multiple violations of air- and water-pollution laws, hazardous-waste regulations, and land-use rules that are supposed to ensure that what he does on his property doesn’t interfere with someone else’s ability to enjoy their property.

“We enjoy the rural setting and quality of life in our community, and are outraged that surface mining would be considered in such a populated area so close to the city of Placerville,” said Dorothy and Glenn Harris of Placerville in a letter that was typical of messages from the community sent to the state mining board.

“We are concerned about the impacts to our health when the winds, which come up the hill, carry dust onto our property and into our lungs,” said a letter from other neighbors of the Placerville mine, Gary and Lana Lentz.

As of this writing, Hardesty and Churches still don’t have any mining permits.

Hardesty’s legal troubles began more than a decade ago, but they became much more acute after 2007, when state and county agencies began aggressively investigating the mining operations.

A close review of the investigators’ reports shows they were unable to find few if any instances where Hardesty complied with environmental laws. Instead, Hardesty stiff-armed anyone who tried to get him to obey the rules.

“He’s a rogue miner,” said Stephen Testa, who, as executive officer of the State Mining & Geology Board, knows a thing or two about the breed. “There are many regulations and laws all mine operators have to abide to in order to mine in California.”

Usually, Testa said, the law looks leniently upon miners who quickly and compliantly respond to notices of violations issued by the state board or the county. If they don’t have a permit, for example, they usually stop mining and go get one, or if out of compliance, works toward correcting the problem.

“But in Hardesty’s case, he knowingly showed total disregard of local and state law,” he said.

Although the courts issued several search warrants, things turned ugly for investigators as they tried to crack down on the miscreant miner. For a time, the Hardesty investigation was able only to limp forward.

Inspectors says Hardesty’s mining operation in Sloughhouse, located some 20 miles southeast of downtown Sacramento, has chewed away part of a river levee and burrowed a deep pit below river level.

 

Hardesty and his men threatened investigator John Williams (who later became co-author of this article) outside a public meeting in 2009 at the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District. Hardesty called Williams a “lying perjuring snake,” exclaiming, “I hope you are all right with Jesus, because you are about to meet your maker.”

If anything, officials met Hardesty’s refusals to cooperate with timidity, and were often discouraged when they found their path to the mines blocked with bulldozers and ornery characters.

Hardesty’s efforts to resist authorities are detailed in agency records.

He fueled the tension by filing countersuits against the agencies and a score of low-level government employees. The suits, charging them as individuals with conspiring to deprive him of his rights, were clearly meant to intimidate everyone involved with enforcement actions against him. When contacted by SN&R, many officials refused to comment on the record about Hardesty.

If his goal was to dissuade them from talking about his misdeeds, the strategy of intimidation worked. For a while.

Raid at Sloughhouse

On May 9, 2009, a hot and sunny day in the Sacramento Valley, 21 officers from a half-dozen government agencies, armed with search warrants, descended upon Hardesty Sand & Gravel at 15000 Meiss Road in rural Sloughhouse, once a bustling wayside for miners headed for the Sierra foothills during the gold rush.

The officers arrived around 9:30 a.m. and stayed all day. At the same time, another 10 officers raided Hardesty’s home and business office at 10176 W. Stockton Boulevard in Elk Grove.

The raids included investigators from the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office and the Elk Grove Police Department, as well as several geologists, engineers and game wardens from various other agencies.

Their aim: to inspect an illegal gravel pit, interview employees, seize computer hard drives and collect water samples, as well as visual evidence of damage to the environment. The raids were among several in the last few years that documented illegal activities at the Sloughhouse site.

Hardesty Sand & Gravel, situated on the historic 3,900-acre Schneider ranch, hugs a southward bend in the Cosumnes River, about a half-mile south of the gated Rancho Murieta suburb.

At the Schneider ranch, Hardesty removed rock from ancient channels clogged with high-grade gravel. He excavated massive open pits with heavy diesel equipment—which he operated without required air-pollution permits—crushing the river rock on site to the desired sizes. His mining operation chewed away part of a river levee and burrowed a deep pit below river level.

Over the last few years, inspectors were often accompanied to the mine site by California Highway Patrol officers and county law-enforcement representatives to keep the peace during inspections.

Hardesty, his attorneys and employees were seldom more than minimally cooperative with inspectors, usually refusing to allow a full inspection of the mining operation at any one time. But according to their reports, inspectors were still able to document significant environmental damage.

They also discovered that Hardesty’s plan to reclaim the site contained “numerous omissions, inconsistencies and false statements,” many of which conflicted with state regulations requiring environmental restoration once mining is finished.

A 68-acre gravel pit situated on the Cosumnes River’s 100-year floodplain—within 30 feet of the river—became a preoccupation for inspectors at the Sloughhouse mine.

Because the bottom of the pit is deeper than the river bottom, river water has been slowly seeping through the ground and into the bottom of the pit—creating an additional hazard for the river. Salmon in the Cosumnes, which often runs dry during late summer, cannot easily withstand water losses.

“Fish need water,” said Trevor Kennedy, executive director of the Fishery Foundation of California.

But seepage was never the biggest worry.

What concerned the state mining board the most was the pit’s potential to rupture the banks of the Cosumnes River and change its course, according to a 2010 state report, which said: “The subject mining operation has provided no safeguards to prevent the active river channel from flowing through the mining pit, which likely would turn the floodplain pit into an instream pit, a process known as pit capture.”

The report said pit capture could lead to severe downstream erosion and irreversible damage to the river and its prized chinook salmon fishery—in short, cause an environmental disaster.

“The resulting environmental damage likely would be technically infeasible or cost prohibitive to correct,” according to the mining board’s report.

In 2008, inspectors from the Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Fish and Game found that Hardesty had unlawfully filled wetlands and creeks, operated heavy equipment in rivers during salmon spawning season, removed state and federal property, and misappropriated river water. The Army Corps was one of several agencies that filed cease-and-desist orders against Hardesty, who ignored them all—until now—with impunity.

Property owner Jay Schneider, who himself is suing Hardesty for pollution at the mine site, had invited the Army Corps of Engineers inspectors to the Sloughhouse mine, but grew frustrated with their thorough methods. Expecting something a little more cursory, he called the inspection “a witchhunt,” and promptly ordered the government officials to leave his land. When they returned with a warrant, this time it was Hardesty and his associates who angrily and loudly ordered them again to leave the property.

The next time the agencies visited the mine, they brought the police.

At the beginning of another inspection, Hardesty jumped into his pickup truck and scurried back to his office, where he fumbled with a padlock that he tried, unsuccessfully, to fasten to a cabinet containing his business records. He was stopped by a California Highway Patrol officer.

In 2009, Hardesty failed to report a spill of waste oil on his site. That year, he was charged with a total of six criminal misdemeanor counts for toxic-waste and water-pollution violations. After a crime lab accidently discarded evidence, all but the oil-spill charge were dropped. That was the charge that led to the recent probation.

But the enforcement actions against Hardesty rarely produced results. Hardesty appealed everything, using the courts to wear down the bureaucrats, who eventually neglected their unclosed cases against Hardesty. All the while, he kept selling the daylights out of his cheap, compliance-free gravel.

Since he wasn’t paying the cost of complying with environmental laws, Hardesty was able to vastly undercut his competitors’ prices. His gravel business boomed while he raked in profits from the lucrative building-materials market in the Sacramento area. Some of his competitors say they laid off workers, unable to match Hardesty’s compliance-free gravel prices.

According to officials, Hardesty’s Big Cut Mine in Placerville has carried pollution and mining waste into the American River, a recreational destination for thousands of Sacramento fishers and hikers.

 

A state law forbidding government agencies from using unsanctioned gravels slowed him down. The mining board later cited Hardesty’s illegal competitive edge when it levied the heavy penalties against him.

Big Cut Mine

On the afternoon of February 8, 2012, police officers with guns drawn came knocking at the gate of the Big Cut Mine, which is situated just outside downtown Placerville in El Dorado County on a narrow, windy suburban road near several school bus stops. Hardesty had been forewarned through his attorney, that a warrant had been issued for his arrest. So when police arrived at the property, they found the road blocked by heavy equipment, according to a report in Placerville’s Mountain Democrat, but no Hardesty.

The Big Cut Mine, located at 2261 Donovan Ranch Road, is a 149-acre spread about 10 miles south of Sutter’s Mill, the birthplace of the 1849 California gold rush. Hardesty bought it in 1998 for $2.5 million.

The mine is accused of polluting Weber Creek, a tributary to the south fork of the American River, degrading the stream as it runs toward Sacramento’s “greenway” which is enjoyed by thousands of fishers and hikers.

As the Mountain Democrat pointed out, Rick Churches’ 17-year-old son and a friend were there. Churches, who lived at the Big Cut Mine, told the paper that the youths were “intimidated” and “threatened” by the heavily armed officers during the afternoon incident.

Later that night, the newspaper said, the elder Churches said he was “rousted” from bed and “forced to stand naked on the front porch” with spotlights and assault weapons aimed at him.

Still, there still was no sign of Hardesty. Police knocked on his mother’s door, with no results. They hunted for Hardesty for 24 hours before he turned himself in at the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office in Placerville. A locked gate now guards the entrance of the Big Cut Mine.

Police arrested him on 23 criminal charges of illegally operating the Big Cut Mine without permits and a host of other water-pollution and hazardous-waste offenses, and later charged Churches as a co-conspirator on 18 counts.

Eight of the charges were felonies, including seven against Hardesty and four against Churches. Counting the six counts at Sloughhouse, Hardesty has now been charged with a total of 29 violations of environmental laws in just the last three years.

He was booked into El Dorado County Jail, but was later released on a $75,000 bond.

The State Mining & Geology Board began looking into operations at the Big Cut Mine in 2002, when El Dorado County found that illegal surface mining was occurring at the site. After the mining board confirmed that report, it issued a $220,000 fine.

Instead of paying the fine, Hardesty shut down the mine. He reopened it in 2006, and resumed the illegal mining. In 2010, after he was shut down a second time, he again resumed mining.

In 2010, the mining board issued a $100,000 fine and another $750,000 penalty for disregarding state mining laws, based on $5,000 per day per violation since the day the notice of violation was first issued. Hardesty still has yet to pay a dime on any of the fines, Testa said.

By mid-April, the total amount of fines owing was $1,070,000 and counting, according to the mining board.

“You won’t believe this, but …”

In 2010, after the state mining board tried to shut Hardesty down for the second time at the Big Cut claim, he quickly moved several pieces of heavy equipment onto the site and began erecting a plant for processing gravel and, for all appearances, gold.

As Hardesty’s angry neighbors told the mining board when they called to complain: “You won’t believe this, but …”

In response, county and state staff members drove to a ridge about the Big Cut Mine and peered down, staggered by the sight of Hardesty’s brazen activities. Below them, workers scurried around like ants as bulldozers and backhoes tore away at the land, stripping bare an area the size of two football fields and gnawing away a hillside. You could almost hear the workers laughing at the mining regulators as the pile of uncollected fines continued to grow day by day.

Despite all the talk about California’s supposedly punitive environmental laws, Hardesty has unerringly targeted regulatory agencies’ common weakness. Enforcement of environmental regulations relies heavily on cooperation from the regulated industries. Agencies are not prepared for uncooperative companies.

In other words, agencies are geared to simply handle and approve permit applications, even those that are filed belatedly, not to prosecute polluters in long-lasting civil and criminal suits.

Hardesty was able to continue his acts of raw defiance thanks in part to the countless thousands of dollars he has spent on no less than 11 attorneys, who raised marginal issues during a six-year long legal battle that is still wending its way through appeals courts.

Despite the agency documents that indicate otherwise, lawyer Brewer told SN&R: “So far, there haven’t been any violations for polluting the water, air or anything else.”

The Last Truckload

The Big Cut Mine sits atop the fabled Mother Lode and what’s said to be a fabulously rich vein of gold known locally as “the deep blue lead”a dried-up underground stream that once upon a time flowed through a blue-quartzite rock formation in the Sierras. Quartzite is known to leach out gold dust when it comes in contact with water.

Hardesty’s lawyer Brewer and Churches’ attorney Peterson both deny that their clients are mining gold, but the precious ore appears to have been at least a side business for Hardesty. A state study from 1992 said some of the gravel from the Big Cut Mine was worthless for most construction jobs, but the site contained plenty of gold. During their raids, police found gold-processing equipment at the two mines. Digging for gold can be quite lucrative for a sand-and-gravel outfit in the western Sierras.

By any measure, Hardesty was making some serious coin, one way or the other. The latter-day forty-niner admits to more than $5 million in annual income in recent years, and has been paying the undoubtedly bloated legal billings from his 11 attorneys as he battled with the agencies.

Clearly, jail time for Hardesty will cost him a lot more than just the time served, and raises this question: Why would he risk his freedom and all that income just to make an arcane political point?

Apparently, Hardesty didn’t want to make that point with SN&R reporters, as he failed to return several phone calls asking for an explanation.

But Rivas, the planner for El Dorado County, believes Hardesty was probably willing to “take his lumps” from the courts for the chance to take a sizable chunk out of the Mother Lode. Rivas said he was willing to give Hardesty a mining permit for a much smaller operation.

Hardesty must have known that, one day, cops would come and haul him away like just another truckload of gravel.

But the ending to this story could be something only a tea party patriot would truly love. According to Brewer, Hardesty filed a federal lawsuit on May 10, alleging that his civil rights had been violated in the investigations against him. And court papers on file with El Dorado County indicate that Hardesty has applied to receive only probation for his latest round of environmental crimes, an indication he still hopes to get nothing more than a scolding for his 30 years of defying the law.

Paul Koberstein