Another case for SMARA reform in California

TSF CEO Elizabeth Martin and Ione Valley LAWDA co-founder Sondra West-Moore at Westhaven Ranch. 50 year old un-reclaimed mining scars are visible in the background.

TSF CEO Elizabeth Martin and Ione Valley LAWDA co-founder Sondra West-Moore at Westhaven Ranch. 50 year old un-reclaimed mining scars are visible in the background.

In November, 2015, CEO Izzy Martin and Outreach Coordinator Kelsey Westfall traveled to Ione, California to meet Sondra West-Moore on the ranch she manages for her family. West-Moore co-founded the Ione Valley Land, Air and Water Defense Alliance (LAWDA).

The organization was created to challenge plans for Newman Ridge Quarry, a 278-acre gravel mine to be constructed adjacent to the ranch, and Edwin Center North, a 114-acre hot-batch asphalt plant to go in just down the road. The Sierra Fund (TSF) took interest in LAWDA’s fight as a case study to shed light on the limitations of current mining law in California, specifically the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA).

Currently, Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) is carrying SB 209, TSF’s bill to amend SMARA by calling for improved enforcement of the bill by lead agencies, regular inspection of mines by experts, proof of financial mechanisms to support reclamation activities, and adequate reclamation plans for when mining concludes that are protective of communities and the environment. These assurances would offer citizens like West-Moore additional legal grounds to challenge mine plans and operations.

West-Moore led a tour of the Westhaven Ranch she now manages after the passing of her father Col. Fraser E. West (USMC Retired), a multi-decorated WWII Veteran, World Champion Military Team Roper, World Class skier and Texas longhorn breeder. At the ranch, a five-acre walnut grove is flanked by grazing pastures for the spectacular longhorn cattle. The fence at the southern edge of the ranch backs up to a 500-foot high, two square mile “Newman Ridge,” dotted with 250-year-old heritage oaks and home to more than 280 species of flora and fauna, some of which are threatened or endangered.

“This ridge would be sunk into a huge pit if the proposed gravel mine is constructed,” says West-Moore. “It is literally in our backyard and threatens at least 23 other family ranches, most of which have been passed down for generations. The land they want to mine is pristine and untouched, and the project would turn this virgin land into an industrial wasteland.

“There is also no business case,” she continues, “as a 60-year old quarry just four miles away is approved for expansion, which would fulfill all need, including production and new jobs.” She has the support of a vast number of community members who are concerned about a degraded quality of life and myriad environmental impacts of the proposed industrial sites.

Increased traffic from asphalt and gravel trucks would pose safety issues as vehicles must navigate two lane roads and 90 degree turns through the tiny rural town of Ione. The quarry and asphalt plant would necessitate pumping 100 million gallons of water per year from local aquifers in an already drought-stricken region, and would emit over 100 tons per year of nitrous oxides and 150 tons a year of particulate matter, vastly degrading the regional air quality.

County citizens are not the only ones concerned with these impacts. The Central Valley Water Quality Control Board, the state Office of Mine Reclamation, the California Department of Transportation and the Department of Fish and Wildlife have all submitted letters urging Amador County to deny the plans.

Despite these warnings, the Amador County Board of Supervisors (BOS) has repeatedly backed the investor, San Francisco-based Farallon Capital Management founded by Tom Steyer, and developers William Bunce and John Telischak, by supporting the project.

In November 2012, the BOS approved the plan for the quarry and asphalt plant with a 4-0 vote, leading LAWDA to file a lawsuit citing the project’s failure to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). After two years in the Amador County Superior Court, the decision sided with LAWDA and the Court issued a Writ of Mandate decertifying the County’s approval of the Environmental Impact Report for the project.

Again in 2015, the BOS approved the project, even after acknowledging that the plan would cause permanent and significant environmental impacts. LAWDA challenged this second decision by creating a referendum against the General Plan amendment, a zoning change from residential/ agriculture to heavy industrial, and the mine’s reclamation plan.

The referendum was met with a wave of support from Amador County citizens, over 2,000 of whom signed on in just 17 days, nearly twice the number of signatures of registered voters needed. In June 2015, the County Registrar validated and certified LAWDA’s referendum, activating one of two options for the BOS:

  1. BOS could reverse its approval of the project; or
  2. BOS could place the project on the ballot for voters to decide.

Instead, with the counsel and support of numerous lawyers provided by the wealthy investor and developers, the County sued LAWDA and West-Moore by name, citing a technicality that called into question the legal right of citizens to challenge a reclamation plan with a referendum.

Never before has a citizen group referendized a reclamation plan, thus no legal precedent existed to inform the Court’s decision. Surprisingly, the Court ruled against LAWDA, rendering the referendum invalid.

The Sierra Fund sees this court case as a legal gray area that must be explicitly addressed: “This is a glaring example of the ineffectiveness of mining law in California, which The Sierra Fund is determined to reform,” says Izzy Martin, CEO of The Sierra Fund. “Currently, the mining industry can challenge a reclamation plan they find too demanding, and we the people should be afforded that same right when the reclamation plan is not protective enough.”

The Sierra Fund plans to support LAWDA in a variety of ways as they move forward. LAWDA has begun raising funds to appeal the Court decision invalidating the referendum, with a goal of $50,000 to cover legal costs.

“The Court’s ruling is devastating,” says West-Moore, “but we will not give up. My father fought this mine and asphalt plant until the day he died, and I am more invested than ever in protecting our constitutional rights, our land, and our ranching legacy.”

For more information, and to get updates on LAWDA’s progress, visit their website at http://www.ionevalleylawda.com/index.html.

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