Judge throws out gravel mine permit

By Reggie Ellis

After 20 years of work, Kaweah River Rock Co. will have to wait at least another year to begin operating a new gravel mine south of Woodlake following a recent court ruling.

Tulare County Superior Court Judge Paul Vortmann recently ruled that Tulare County's environmental impact report (EIR) for the proposed 280-acre mine site violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and ordered Tulare County to &#8220vacate and remand” its approvals of KRRC's mining permit, EIR and Reclamation Plan for the project. Enacted in 1970, CEQA requires land use applicants to show mitigation measures for potential environmental impacts of a project. The lawsuit was filed by Valley Citizens for Water (VCW) - a group of local residents, property owners and business owners who were concerned about the affect the mine might have on well water levels and quality of life.

VCW was represented by Caroline Farrell, directing attorney for the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment's (CRPE) Delano Office. Farrell said Vortmann's decision ultimately came down to the EIR's insufficient data regarding emissions data and water depth data.

&#8220Unless the county studies the aquifer there is no way of telling what those historic depths are,” Farrell said.

The lawsuit contended that Tulare County violated California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in four main areas by approving Kaweah River Rock Company's permit for a new gravel mine site.

1. The Environmental Impact Report (EIR) approved by the county failed to describe and analyze direct air impacts from the gravel mine.

2. Tulare County failed to adequately analyze cumulative impacts from the proposed gravel mine

3. Tulare County tried to piecemeal the project by not analyzing impacts of potential future concrete/asphalt plants.

4. Tulare County failed to adequately analyze and require feasible mitigation measures for the gravel mine.

Water was VCW's main issue of concern with the project. Local residents were worried that the project would lower groundwater levels, forcing them to drill new wells. Julie Bigham, a spokesperson for VCW, said VCW is not anti-aggregate but wants groundwater protected.

&#8220Without water, cities cannot exist, no matter how much sand and gravel they have,” she said. &#8220There are alternatives such as hard rock mining. The county could get the aggregate it needs, preserve prime ag land while eliminating significant risks of digging in the area's most important aquifer. It is easier to scoop out sand, gravel and gold than other alternatives, however, the time has come for the county to be proactive.”

In his decision, Vortmann wrote that the county's EIR was based on a &#8220much different and deeper groundwater strata” than the one at the project site, given the county an inaccurate history of groundwater levels in the area.

&#8220Without the information on the actual aquifer affected by the project, it will be impossible to determine whether or not the gravel mine has substantially depleted groundwater resources,” Vortmann wrote.

In his ruling, Vortmann said that the EIR failed to analyze air impacts because it made assumptions based on a comparison to an existing, adjacent project instead of comparing the project area's current use as ranch land.

&#8220The County reasoned that the proposed mine will use more modern equipment than the existing mine. The County improperly compares this project to the existing gravel mine rather than what is currently happening at the proposed site.”

Vortmann continued that the county did not provide any information on the types of equipment that will be modernized nor calculations proving that the equipment would result in a less than significant impact in air quality. The EIR also speculates that having a local source of aggregate would reduce air emissions by eliminating long truck hauls to import rock into the county. &#8220However, the County does not provide any information documenting the actual air emission savings garnered from having a local source of aggregate …”

Dave Harrald, general manager for Kaweah River Rock, said the judge's comments were frustrating since the EIR was supported by the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District (KDWCD) and signed off on by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD). KDWCD was formed under the Water Conservation Act of 1927, which gives districts the authority &#8220to appropriate, acquire, protect and conserve water and water rights for any useful purpose; to protect land or property from floods; to store and distribute surface waters to district lands; to replenish underground water …” for the Kaweah River watershed. SJVAPCD was created to improve air quality in the Valley through programs and policies.

&#8220It's like we are driving 60 mph on a dead end road and are hoping a detour can be built in time,” said David Harrald, general manager of Kaweah River Rock. &#8220This delay is very frustrating.”

According to the judge, the county's EIR failed to adequately analyze the cumulative impacts of the gravel mine. While the county did list six other gravel mine projects within six miles of the project, Vortmann ruled it did not analyze what the affect of another mine, in addition to the existing mines, would have on air quality.

CEQA requirements to mitigate flooding and drops in groundwater levels were also inadequate. VCW argued that the County would not be getting relevant flood data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) until after the permit was approved. According to Vortmann, &#8220The failure to involved the public and interested agencies, such as the FEMA, in verifying the County's analysis during the public CEQA process deprived the public and decisionmakers of important information.”

Vortmann's ruling did state that Tulare County adequately addressed traffic concerns and did not attempt to piecemail the project. The ruling stated that although the is potential to operate on 810 acres, the 280-acre project is all that is being applied for at this time. In other words, there is no guarantee that these facilities will ever be built or operated and if they are, will be reviewed during a new permit process. Future developments are only included in EIRs if they are required for the project to operate.

However, Vortmann did rule that the county failed to analyze the potential impacts of future concrete/asphalt mixing and/or batch plants because having a mine and a batch plant might cumulatively impact the area differently than if there was a plant without a mine.

Harrald said owners are disappointed by the decision. Kaweah River Rock began its quest for a new site 20 years ago when it applied for a permit to mine 800 acres of the 815-acre Hannah Ranch property three miles south of Woodlake. The permit failed in a 3-2 vote in June 1999 after 13 years of hearings. The new permit for a 280-acre project was filed in 2003 and approved by the Planning Commission in January 2005. VCW appealed that decision to the Board of Supervisors, which approved the project in May 2006.

Harrald said Kaweah River Rock is confident that the issues raised can be addressed through a focused supplemental Environmental Impact Report document which must be approved by the judge. Harrald estimates that this delay will cost consumers in Tulare County as much as $10 million more per year.

&#8220Tulare County's schools, homes, roads and sidewalks will require 1 million ton of sand and gravel per year from this project,” Harrald noted. &#8220Shipping from distant plants, rather than right here in the county, will add $10 to each ton purchased. That means $10 million right out of homebuyers' and taxpayers' pocket books.”

Kaweah River Rock's current site in Woodlake is nearly depleted, and the aggregates industry warns that Tulare County has an inadequate permitted supply. Without a new local permit, all building materials will have to be shipped in from outside the county, generating additional truck traffic, air pollution and wear and tear on Tulare County's roads.

&#8220The aggregate shortage is now real!” Harrald said.

Bigham said Tulare County created its own aggregate dilema by not following through with a comprehensive study of mining issues.

&#8220VCW has been telling the county for over 20 years that mining the Hannah Ranch could create huge problems in the future,” Bigham said. &#8220This lawsuit enables VCW to be heard and requires that the county produce a complete EIR.”

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