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Fresno County takes next step on Carmelita mine plan

One of Fresno County's biggest mining proposals in years -- the Carmelita mine near Reedley -- got key backing of the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

The board voted to tentatively re-approve the reclamation plan for the mine off Highway 180 near the Kings River. Supervisor Judy Case did not vote because of a conflict. She said her husband has a business link to mining operations.

The tentative approval allows the county's planning department to compile a written report of Tuesday's hearing and comments to present to the board at the Aug. 6 meeting.

The board previously approved the reclamation plan and the project's environmental impact report in October. But opponents of the mine, the Friends of the Kings River, appealed the decision to the State Mining and Geology Board.

The board in March sent the plan back to the county for reconsideration because it lacked information about grading and drainage, post-mining water balance and water discharge. Other issues including soil erosion were also raised.

"Our concern is the long-term effect" of the mine, said Marsha Burch, the group's attorney.

The mine and asphalt plant is expected to fill a need in the Fresno area for sand and gravel to build homes, roads and perhaps a route for the proposed high-speed train. The mine would be built on 886 acres of a 1,500-acre site owned by the Gerawan family, which runs one of the world's largest tree fruit companies.

The reclamation plan has been updated to include a grading plan and information about water discharge, said Augustine Ramirez, deputy county surveyor.

There were no major changes in the plan or the environmental impact report, Ramirez said.

And work on getting the mine ready has not stopped. Since approval of the Carmelita mine, "we continue to plan our design of the property," said Mike Mallery, the project manager and attorney. "We submitted the necessary applications for regulatory permits that are needed to operate and intend to begin our operations as early as next year."

The Carmelita site will be divided into 22 cells -- each 40 acres and up to 50 feet deep. It is expected to yield 1.25 million tons of aggregate annually over its 100-year life. The mine is expected to produce 700 additional vehicle round-trips on local roads.

The mine still faces a lawsuit filed by the Friends of the Kings River. Burch said the group can also challenge the board's decision on the reclamation plan.

About 10 people spoke at the hearing against the project citing environmental concerns including soil erosion, wildlife and the overall safety of the area.

Christine Bienvenue, who has lived behind the proposed mine for 17 years, is concerned about the stability and safety of the mining pits.

"What will the proponents of this project do to prevent erosion," Bienvenue said. "We don't want to wait until someone dies, falls into a pit, or it becomes a wildlife hazard."

"They can't ever convince me that those pits will ever be safe."