Divided Madera County board approves Austin Quarry project after marathon hearing

Emotions run high over quarry

Madera County supervisors and both sides -- pro and con -- discuss the controversial Austin Quarry project in front of an overflow crowd on Monday, Sept. 12, 2016.
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Madera County supervisors and both sides -- pro and con -- discuss the controversial Austin Quarry project in front of an overflow crowd on Monday, Sept. 12, 2016.

A split Madera County Board of Supervisors approved the Austin Quarry Monday night after a marathon public hearing that saw more than 100 people on each side of the debate line up to share their views.

Supervisors Max Rodriguez and Brett Frazier voted against the project, citing opposition from residents. Supervisors David Rogers, Rick Farinelli and Tom Wheeler supported it. The vote came just before 8 p.m.

“Madera Quarry was using scare tactics to get people to oppose (Austin Quarry) so they wouldn’t have competition,” Wheeler said later. “They were claiming there would be a truck hauling every 30 seconds, but you can’t load a truck in 30 seconds.”

When the special meeting began at 9 a.m., more than 100 people on each side of the debate were in attendance. Throngs of people donned red “anti-quarry” and blue “pro-quarry” shirts to form opposing but equally strong forces. Farinelli said it was by far the largest crowd he had seen attend a board meeting.

The agenda had one item: Consider an appeal of the county Planning Commission’s 3-2 approval of the project.

Opponents have lined up for years against the planned quarry on the southwest corner of Highway 41 and Highway 145. Chief among them are Madera Quarry, the existing quarry which opened on Road 209 a year ago, and the Madera Oversight Coalition, a watchdog organization founded to keep an eye on the county government. The Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians also opposes the quarry, as it would be built on several sites sacred to the tribe.

Vulcan Material Co., the Birmingham, Ala., company looking to build the quarry, received support from the Madera Unified School District, Madera County Economic Development Commission and Caltrans.

Water consumption is a major issue. The county staff report notes that the project would use about 105 acre-feet of water per year. Most would be recycled. The agreement requires Vulcan to provide the county with 500 acre-feet of surface water every five years to offset the consumption.

The county contends that wells near the project should not be affected, as most of the area wells are only drawing water from 500 feet or deeper. The quarry would be 400 feet deep.

David Hale, attorney for the Madera Oversight Coalition, presented evidence that he says shows the fractures that groundwater filters through would be altered by the digging, and some of this water would end up evaporating.

He fiercely disagreed with the water consumption figures put forth in the county staff report. His hydrology experts estimate 2,700 to 4,000 acre-feet per year.

Hale also doubted statements from the U.S. Geological Survey noting that the Fresno and Madera area would have a 151 million ton aggregate shortage. He said the Madera Quarry mines more than enough to meet future county needs. Madera County recently voted to expand southward with several housing developments.

The oversight commission and Madera Quarry did little to disprove the assumption of some on the pro-quarry side that the two are working in tandem – despite having no official partnership. Supervisor Tom Wheeler drew the considerable ire of the anti-quarry supporters when he muttered, under his breath, that the Madera Quarry was funding the coalition’s opposition. He apologized, and the public record was amended.

Traffic and noise are also key issues. Just over 400 trucks will leave and return to the quarry each day, the staff report said. Hale said the number will actually be far greater, as mines can operate at up to 400 percent capacity. Berms would be built onto the side of the quarry to minimize the loud noise.

The staff report notes the quarry would contribute $40 million per year to the county economy and provide up to 40 full-time jobs. It would also contribute “significantly” to local particulate matter pollution and greenhouse gases.

To that end, Vulcan will have to closely monitor a variety of environmental and logistical factors. These include pollution, water use, the wells within the area, road maintenance and noise. The project is also required to upgrade Highways 145 and 41. On Friday, Vulcan offered to sweeten the deal: Instead of merely adding a long turn lane on Highway 145 and widening southbound Highway 41, it would contribute $20 million for those projects and future road maintenance.

John Henning, the Madera Quarry attorney, thinks such concessions are unfair. He said that his company is required to do far more mitigation, despite being roughly one-third the size of the proposed Austin Quarry. For example, Madera Quarry was required to test water consumption on its site for three years before building. He said that Austin did not have to meet the same standard.

Henning said the Madera Quarry would consider legal action against the county if the supervisors approve Austin Quarry.

Patrick Mitchell, Vulcan’s Sacramento-based attorney backed many of the county’s findings, and he took on the two opposition lawyers – as well as the handful of red shirts yelling disapproving comments during his speech.

Mitchell said that competition between Austin and Madera quarries would stimulate the economy even further than the $40 million listed in the staff report. He asserted that the upcoming housing developments, any future building plans and the road maintenance desperately needed in both Fresno and Madera counties would create a high demand for aggregate. A modern house requires 400 tons of aggregate, he added, and 38,000 tons are needed for each mile of repaved highway.

He also refuted many of the opposing statements on traffic. He accused the coalition of inflating these numbers to different, incorrect totals on several occasions. He also said the traffic would exist regardless of Austin, as these materials would be trucked in from quarries in Coalinga, Sanger or Friant if the new quarry was not approved.

The Austin Quarry is farther from the nearest house than most quarries he has represented in 31 years, Mitchell said. Sanger, Friant and Madera quarries are all closer to the nearest home than the 1,100 or so feet of distance between Austin and its nearest neighbor.

After Mitchell’s presentation, the floor opened to public comment, and more than 100 people submitted requests to speak.

Many expressed concern for the quarry’s potential to affect the Valley’s already polluted air and water, as well as the impacts on traffic. Some said they already have respiratory issues and worried about how the project will affect animals in the area, especially protected species.

Many worried about driving safety on Highway 41, especially given the tourism to Yosemite, frequency of accidents and Valley fog.

Frank Santos, who moved to Madera from Selma three years ago, said he was told when he moved that the quarry project wouldn’t happen for 20 years.

Santos said he is particularly worried about having to drill a new well.

“I don’t have that kind of money. I’m a retiree,” he said. “You need to fix problems before the project starts. I’m not opposed to business, I’m not opposed to industry.”

Some worried about the drilling noise they might hear from their homes. A few disputed calling it a quarry, saying a better description is a mining pit.

One woman collected 1,484 signatures on a petition of those opposed to the quarry. Some said they skipped work to attend the hearing, including a woman who said she canceled four classes at Fresno State to be there.

Ed Kaczmarek, who lives in Madera Ranchos, emphasized the loss of property values, and said he thinks Madera County will lose a significant portion of its tax base. More than a dozen people raised their hands when he asked who is considering selling their home.

“The people who live here are actually thinking of selling our homes,” he said. “I think that’s sad.”

On the pro-quarry side, speakers noted that the project will generate long-term jobs and stimulate other industries, such as construction.

Many who spoke said they are Vulcan employees. They talked about the company’s quality benefits packages, high wages, dedication to employees and safety, as well as its environmental stewardship.

Employees said they, like the residents who are opposed to the quarry, care about their community, their health and the environment.

Jennifer Wender, a plant operations administrator at Vulcan, said residents have been misled. She said their fear is understandable, but invited them to tour the quarry on Friant Road so they could see how Vulcan operates.

“We want to be your neighbors and we want to be good neighbors,” she said. “We want to work with you and not take advantage of you.”

Heather O’Neal, a Madera Ranchos resident who works as a 911 dispatcher, disputed the concerns about increased traffic affecting highway safety. She said accidents rarely involve semi-trucks; usually they are caused by impatient, distracted or drunken drivers.

David Donaldson, Vulcan’s vice president of market development, said he would oppose the project too if the problems that those opposed talked about were actually true. He said Vulcan has twice been named one of the top 10 companies for social responsibility in an annual Fortune ranking.

Donaldson said he understands residents’ concerns but Vulcan will stop and fix any problems that arise.

“We cannot thrive here unless the community is succeeding,” he said.

Janis Armstrong, a county resident, said water is a concern for all Madera residents, but that she and her husband knew the risk of choosing to live on a property with a private well. In 43 years, they have paid for three wells and don’t blame anyone for it.

Armstrong said Vulcan is doing everything right, and is a company that keeps its word.

“I hope you make the right decision for us. There are many more people than 1,500 in Madera County,” she said to the supervisors, referring to the anti-quarry petition.

Staff writer Troy Pope contributed to this report. Rory Appleton: 559-441-6015, @RoryDoesPhonics