Rock company finally rolling

By Reggie Ellis

Kaweah River Rock Co. filed for a permit to extend its mining operation on the Kaweah River Delta 21 years ago. When the Tulare County Board of Supervisors met on Mary 12, the company finally got its answer.

The Tulare County Board of Supervisors tentatively approved plans to build a 280-acre sand and gravel mine along the St. John's River near Avenue 232 south of Woodlake with a 4-0 vote. Supervisor Mike Ennis abstained. The county has been reviewing a revised version of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) since a federal judge ruled in March of last year that the original EIR failed to address air and water quality concerns. The issue will be back on the agenda for the May 22 when final approval of the project is expected.

Tulare County Superior Court Judge Paul Vortmann ruled in March that Tulare County's environmental impact report (EIR) 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, air quality 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.

The lawsuit contended that the EIR violated CEQA by failing to analyze four main areas - direct air impacts, cumulative impacts, possible future concrete/asphalt plants and feasible mitigation measures. 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 …” even though the document was signed off on by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD) the quasi-governmental agency created to improve air quality in the Valley through programs, policies, rules and regulations.

Harrald said the primary revision of the EIR was a more in depth analysis of the air quality chapter. While the analysis was revised, the report reached the same conclusion.

&#8220The best location for the project is the closest to the market,” Harrald said. &#8220The increased diesel emissions to haul rock over long distances is much higher than the direct effects of the operation itself.”

Although there 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. &#8220That is not even being proposed,” Harrald said.

The quarry was under a time crunch to get a new permit as its aggregate supplies are dwindling. Harrald said the company was having difficulty keeping up with demand and that their supplies might have lasted another two years at the most. Prior to the decision, permitted aggregate reserves in the Visalia area were expected to run out by 2010, according to a 1997 report by the California Division of Mines and Geology. Historically, Harrald said Kaweah River Rock supplies about a third of Tulare County's aggregate. Harrald said the new mining permit should supply the county with aggregate for the next 20-30 years. That supply became more critical this November when Tulare County residents approved Measure R, a half-cent sales tax increase earmarked for road construction and maintenance projects, that is planning to spend $600 million over the next 30 years.

&#8220I think Measure R made the need for future aggregate more apparent,” Harrald said. &#8220The needs of the future leap frogged ahead after the measure passed.”

Kaweah River Rock began its quest for a new site in 1986 when it applied for a permit to mine 800 acres of the 815-acre Hannah Ranch property. 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.

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