Those for or against a proposed Austin Quarry sit in the lobby of the Madera County Government Center after filling all seats in the board of supervisors chamber. (John Rieping/The Madera Tribune)
The Madera County Board of Supervisors has upheld a decision to allow Austin Quarry to be established near the intersection of state routes 145 and 41.
Supervisors faced a sea of red and blue T-shirts at an 11-hour special meeting Monday and affirmed a July planning commission approval of the project. Both the commission and the supervisors backed the project 3-2.
A polarized crowd of hundreds, foes in red and fans in blue, filled the board’s chambers at the government center and overflowed into the lobby, which had been set up with folding chairs.
Supervisors Brett Frazier and Max Rodriguez (districts 1 and 4) rejected the hard rock mining and processing operation, citing opposition by local voters. Rodriguez said his biggest concern was traffic safety, while Frazier wanted assurances that Vulcan Materials Company would help quarry neighbors if wells went dry.
“I’ve talked to them (Vulcan). They’re not the devil. They do care,” said Frazier, who represents the Ranchos areas. Pointing out those in red shirts, he continued, “And I know when I talk to them they are scared. They are fearful of what this is going to do and the onus is on you, not me, to provide that education to show them that this is not a bad project.”
“No matter how much you try to mitigate the project, the risks outweigh the benefits,” said Rodriguez after sharing his concerns about both highways. “In my opinion, one loss of life is one too many. These are roads our spouses, children, grandchildren travel. Our friends and neighbors commute on these roads.”
Board chairman Rick Farinelli (District 3) and supervisors Tom Wheeler and David Rogers (districts 5 and 2) okayed the mine, citing the region’s need for high quality aggregate (crushed stone, sand and gravel). Wheeler and Farinelli also critiqued the fear tactics of those trying to prevent the mine, and Wheeler and Rogers questioned the credibility of self-contradictory testimony against it.
“ I have to say that your attorney didn’t do you any favor on the opposition side by spinning things that didn’t matter and basically lying about it along the way – telling us that there was no demand for aggregate. I know better,” said Rogers. “I’m in the building industry. I am a builder by trade. I’m a licensed general contractor. I’ve been building 30 years. Before that I was in engineering. So I know when I’m being smoked.”
Attorneys for Oakhurst-based Madera Oversight Coalition and Oakland-based Shimmick Construction, owner of rival business Madera Quarry, argued against the proposed mining operation while Roseville attorney Pat Mitchell of Mitchell Chadwick defended it.
Experts and the general public provided testimony, with 93 people sworn in to testify against the project and 41 for it. A majority of its foes lived in Bonadelle Ranchos or Madera Ranchos, though a few worked for rival Madera Quarry. Most of those speaking for the proposal had ties to Vulcan Materials Company, which provided refreshments outside the government center for those who attended.
Bill Ralph, conservation chair of Yosemite Area Audubon Society, asked, “What is the benefit to Madera to lock in control and mitigations for 100 years? You would not permit a current operation to operate based on 1916 (environmental) standards, so why continue to allow an operation right now to exist through 2116 using today’s standards?”
The quarry, processing plant, entrance road and landscaped berms would occupy 348 acres of a 671-acre site for as long as 100 years, delving as deep as 400 feet. Ralph was skeptical that a wildlife habitat established by the quarry would be enough to outweigh the environmental impact of the quarry itself.
Sheryl Gray shared her perspective as someone who lives half a mile from the Madera Quarry. “There’s a lot of mitigations that were put in place for Madera Quarry that, I will tell you right now, are not being followed,” she said, noting a lack of signage, incomplete roadwork, no fog lines, and loose gravel always on the street. “We were woken up at 4 or 5 in the morning, every morning, by the growl of quarry operations beginning. In the EIR (Environmental Impact Report), it says operations start at 7 (a.m.). I’m using these not to crucify the other quarry but to say that when you put mitigations in place, they must be enforced.”
Madera County planning director Norman Allinder passionately denied claims the county had given Vulcan’s proposal better treatment than the Madera Quarry proposal had received or lacked the means to enforce quarry mitigations.
“Let me be clear to the attorney from Madera Quarry,” he said. “If there was a flaw in the selection of these consultants, it followed the same selection process as their project did. And if there was a flaw in the processing of this project, it followed the same processing as Madera Quarry followed. If we have erred in the analysis of the project, then they should look at their own project, because we did the same analysis. In fact, (we) used the same EIR consultants as (for) Madera Quarry. And they know full well we do enforcement, because I issued a cease and desist order against its client because they went rogue and they started hauling more.”
Among many other points, Mitchell highlighted instances where two water experts cited and praised by those arguing against the Austin Quarry contradicted their testimony. He also pointed out a past endorsement of Vulcan establishing a mine in Madera County by the current president of the Madera Oversight Coalition.
The public generally behaved well during the lengthy meeting, though occasionally those upset about the quarry made it difficult to hear speakers due to applause, outcries, heckling or private conversation.
“I know when my fourth grade and second grade kids come home and ask me, ‘Are we against Austin Curry?’ ... (that) the kids at school are talking about this,” said Frazier near the end of the meeting. “This ... was so deeply important to this community that it touched everybody … I don’t know how many times there were almost tears up here because of what this would do to their way of life.”