By Chip Ashley
If Gerawan Farming gets its way, the Carmelita Mine will extract river rock—10–50 pound chunks of round loaf-shaped rocks to be crushed into aggregate—from the alluvium along the east side of the Kings River as it flows southward toward the city of Reedley. Ironically, the proposed mine is located just a few miles from Jesse Morrow Mountain (known to the native Choinumni people as Wa-hah-lich), where the multinational corporation Cemex had proposed to locate an aggregate mine that the Fresno County Board of Supervisors (BOS) denied last year. The Carmelita mine would be sited on 1,500 acres west of Reed Avenue, south of Annadale Avenue and north of Central Avenue.
Gerawan Farming is the largest grower of stone fruit—peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots—in the United States. It is a family-owned business that has been embroiled in labor disputes with the United Farm Workers (UFW) and thousands of farmworkers who pick fruit and work in their orchards.
The mine was proposed in 2010. Neighbors formed Friends of the Kings River and have opposed the project since its inception. Attorney Marsha Burch—who also represents the Friends of Jesse Morrow Mountain—is the group’s attorney.
After a lengthy scoping and review process, the Fresno County Planning Commission approved the Carmelita Project on Aug. 9, 2012. The Friends appealed to the BOS, which ruled against their appeal and approved the project on Oct. 16, 2012. But the Friends then appealed the ruling to the California Department of Conservation Office of Mine Reclamation (OMR). The OMR board denied approval of the project in March based on serious challenges to reclaiming the land to a beneficial use after completion of the mining operation.
The OMR Board cited erosion problems caused by steep slopes, which are required in this case to make the ponds unappealing to large waterfowl, such as Canadian geese, ducks, herons and egrets that commonly use wetlands in the area and are a threat to airplanes taking off from neighboring Reedley Airport. Waterfowl do not like steep slopes and will not use bodies of water with steep banks. One member of the OMR Board stated that erosion would be a perennial problem due to the steep slopes and loose alluvial soil.
At the most recent hearing before the BOS on July 9, the County Planning Commission argued that as the lead agency in the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) process, the BOS could ignore the OMR’s ruling because the OMR lacked the authority to overrule the BOS decision. CEQA requires an extensive environmental assessment, known as an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), of large projects involving a zoning change. Responding to the OMR’s concerns about the erosion of the steep slopes, staff said simply that all of the OMR’s complaints were addressed in the original EIR and, thus, no further action was necessary.
The discussion at times grew heated. At one point, Supervisor Henry Perea asked staff in an apparent rhetorical question: “What’s going on with these [state] agencies? Do they want to stop business?” When Friends attorney Burch commented that the county’s response to the letter from the OMR was “dismissive,” Supervisor Debbie Poochigian retorted that Burch had also been at times “dismissive.”
After several of the Friends made public comments, Supervisor Phil Larson moved that the project be approved pending staff’s preparation of a written response to the ruling by the OMR. The motion passed unanimously, with Supervisor Judy Case recusing herself because of her husband’s connections with the project.
But it’s not over. The Friends of Kings River have filed a lawsuit.
Chip Ashley is a local environmental activist and member of the Tehipite Chapter of the Sierra Club. Contact him at 559-855-6376 or firstname.lastname@example.org.