Ag, aggregate debate mining permit

By Reggie Ellis

Progress or preservation?

It's a complicated question posed in California on a daily basis that does not have a clear answer. A microcosm of that debate continued at a special meeting of the Tulare County Planning Commission on Nov. 10 in Tulare County's administrative chamber.

During a summary of the Final Environmental Impact Report for a permit by Kaweah River Rock to mine 240 acres adjacent to the Lower Kaweah River, the major concerns cited by those in opposition were loss of well capacity, alteration of groundwater flows, induced seepage of contaminants from the project into the river, the effectiveness of the bypass system to return water upstream, water evaporation in the dry basin of the excavation site, and the use of an "experimental" cut-off wall to prevent a break in the levee next to the river.

Tom Sheehan, an independent hydrologist who reviewed the FEIR on behalf of the county, said the cut-off wall is not experimental and is a proven engineering technique used on similar projects. Natural clay is taken from the ground and mixed with sand and gravel to create an impermeable barrier from the top of the levee down to two feet below the excavation pit. The mixture creates a jello like barrier that will not allow water to pass but will be flexible enough to bend but not break.

He also said that the reclamation portion of the project would create a groundwater recharge facility that would result in a an increase of water to the area that would far outweigh negligible losses to evaporation.

"This project will bring new water into the district that is a significant benefit," said Sheehan, who also served as peer review for the county during KRR's last permit which was denied by the Board of Supervisors in 1999. "During high storm events this facility will capture water that would normally go to the ocean. The benefit won't occur now but 30 years from now. If we're an overdrafted area now, think of what will happen with the population increases in the next 30 years."

Following a summary of the Final Environmental Impact Report, people on both sides of the issue made what they thought was a final stand before the commission's approval or denial.

Progress

Kaweah River Rock General Manager David Harrald led a long line of aggregate and construction industry advocates who supported the mining permit for economic reasons. Harrald said there is less than 10 million tons of aggregate in the Lemon Cove and Woodlake area if KRR's permit is denied.

"Since World War II, 60 million tons of sand and gravel have been used in Tulare County," he said. "That's at a rate of about 2 million tons per year. In the next 20 years it's expected that it will be 3 million per year. In the next 20 years we will need a supply equal to what the county has used in the last 70 years."

Linda Falasco, executive director of the Construction Materials Association of California, said aggregate is literally a "cradle to grave" industry. "You are born in it, live in it, work in it, drive on it, and are buried in it." She said Fresno and Madera counties only produce 17 percent of their demand, there are no permitted future supplies in Kings County which would mean Tulare County would have to import aggregate from Bakersfield.

Charles Wensley, president of Viking Ready Mix in Visalia, said buying from local mines such as KRR is $2 per ton less than Fresno and Madera. That extra cost affects more than just contractors.

"If we don't have a local supply we will all have to pay more to fix our roads which will cost the county and its citizens," he told the planning commission. "Our road systems are already in need of repair."

George Elam, representing the Tulare-Kings Builders Exchange, said all 450 members of his organization rely on local sources of aggregate to remain competitive. He suggested that without a local source, many of those business owners would have to consider moving operations closer to supply, taking jobs out of the county with them.

If they stayed in the county, most aggregate would be shipped in from Bakersfield or Coalinga. Bob Berry, a general engineer contractor, said that would add pollution to an already hazardous climate.

"Shipping in rock would have raised a street job in Woodlake by 11 percent," he said. "And it would add 300 added hours of trucks tearing up the roads and polluting the air."

But not all those in favor were there on behalf of the aggregate industry. Cathy Leach said she has lived next to KRR for the last 17 years and has found them to be nothing but "wonderful people." She said "A rock plant regulated by state and federal agencies and people with ethics is a better plan" than a pecan orchard that causes dust in the air and pollutes the ground with pesticides.

Preservation

The opposition to the permit brought a hydrologist of their own. Ken Schmidt, a ground water hydrologist who has studied the area for many years, said the FEIR does not adequately address groundwater quality issues. He said the report is predicated on preventing contamination of the groundwater but does not mention what will be done if contaminants are found.

"I don't argue that this plan can work," Schmidt said. "It's weakness is who will interpret this data for the county. The county does not have a hydrogeologist to to review the information. You can't just submit data and think that's the end of the problem.

Del Strange, a nearby resident and representative for Valley Citizens for Water, said if the water level of a nearby well drops it is the farmers, not KRR's responsibility to prove that the mining operation caused the change.

"The cost should be born by the [mining permit] applicant," Strange said. "And if there is a six to eight month delay to analyze and solve the problem those people would be without water."

Gene Douglas Bigham said he was concerned about traffic safety. He said the the mining operation would essentially be a truck stop with 320 trips daily.

"It is not a matter of if an accident will occur but when," he said. "This is a conversion of a rural paradise to an industrial zone with lower housing values. This area is the most beautiful and charming in Tulare County. It could be an affluent bedroom community. I enjoy getting up early and watching the sun rise over the Sierras and hear the bird chirping. This is home. This is country. If this permit passes it will be 320 trucks that are loud and incessant."

George Clausen and John Pehrson, with the Kaweah and St. Johns Farmers League, said the alternative to the project is just a few miles to the east at the hard rock mining operations in Lemon Cove. The only resolution, they said, is something that does not dig into the county's most precious resource -- water, not aggregate.

"This county used to regard agriculture as something more than intermittent use of land," Pherson said. "Tulare County historically had strong policy with respect to agriculture."

Public Hearing

The Planning Commission has yet to make its decision as public comments from the FEIR will now be addressed in a formal resolution to the Planning Commission. George Finney, long range planning director for the county's Resource Management Agency, said the resolution will be circulated to the public 15 days before the next hearing at 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 15 at the commission's meeting room in the County Government Plaza at 5961 S. Mooney Blvd.

The aggregate and construction industry is a $1 billion industry in Tulare County. Agriculture is a $3 billion industry in Tulare County. But as far as the county's is concerned the percentages may be all that matter. If approved, the Kaweah South Project potentially represents about 33 percent of the county's source of aggregate. If denied, the preserved farmland would only represent a fraction of a percent of the harvested acreage in the county.

Visalia resident Bob Ludekens has fought for local water before. In 1998, he was chairman of a landowner group that fought the concrete lining of the Tulare Irrigation District's canal because it would prevent natural percolation into the groundwater. So, when he received a letter from Del Strange telling about the mining project's possible affect on groundwater flow, Ludekens, along with a few others, got in their trucks and headed over to Kaweah River Rock to inspect the project area.

"They've done a fine job," Ludekens said. "The people who could have lost water will gain. We need a local source of rock there's no doubt about that. I don't think this hurts the people around it."

As the saying goes, progress may be inevitable.

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