The Madera County Planning Commission at its Tuesday night meeting could decide the fate of the intensely scrutinized Austin Quarry, an aggregate mining facility proposed near the intersection of Highways 41 and 145.
If the five-member commission approves the project and its decision isn’t appealed, Vulcan Materials Company of Birmingham, Alabama, can move forward on the 671-acre site, with 258 of it designated for the quarry at a projected depth of 400 feet.
Since it first applied for the project in July 2010, Vulcan and Madera County have received continuous criticism from the public and some state agencies over the quarry’s environmental impacts, primarily to the area’s water, traffic and air quality.
After some 300 letters were received over the Revised Draft Environmental Impact Report issued in October 2014, both Vulcan and Madera County say they have worked to mitigate many of those worries, with agreements to construct new lanes on the highways and ensure they don’t drain the water wells of area homeowners.
Critics, however, say the nearly 11,000-page document doesn’t guarantee enough to satisfy the public’s concerns and should allow more time for review before the commission makes its decision.
Vulcan amends plans in face of criticism
The Final EIR, sent out June 28 by lead consultant Benchmark Resources of Folsom, contains six changes listed as notable, with an additional eight requirements made by county staff included as Conditions of Approval.
One of the most notable changes in the report is the elimination of Vulcan’s proposed on-site asphalt plant and concrete recycling facilities, which would lower greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent and reduce highway traffic.
At morning traffic peak hours, 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., Vulcan estimates a maximum of 63 truck trips per hour in and out of the quarry. During evening traffic peak hours, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., the company estimates 16 trips per hour. On average, the 24-hour quarry would generate 816 truck trips per day (an average of 34 per hour).
For years, traffic and water have been the two primary public concerns about the project, with more than 50 percent of the 300 comment letters focused on those issues alone.
As part of the conditions necessary for the commission to approve the work, Vulcan agreed to fully fund construction of both an eastbound travel lane on Highway 145 from the project site to Highway 41 and an additional southbound lane on Highway 41 from that intersection to Avenue 15 about three miles south.
The one-mile lane on 145 will be constructed before the quarry can begin operations – estimated by Vulcan staff in 2018 or 2019 pending county, state and federal approvals – while the 41 lane will be dependent on the time when Caltrans finishes plans on the work. Vulcan must provide the dollars within 60 days of when Caltrans makes a funding request.
On water, Vulcan spokesperson Barbara Goodrich-Welk, with input from the quarry’s project manager Mike Linton, said three separate hydrogeologists and hydrologists have reviewed the project, concluding there will be no impact to the area’s groundwater supply.
In the COA list, among many other requirements, Vulcan must also: determine no long-term net loss of groundwater and fund an annual balance report to the county; provide 100 acre-feet of surface water per year to the nearby Root Creek Water District; and monitor several wells on site that draw from the expansive Madera Groundwater Subbasin.
Also, Vulcan must respond to any complaints that include evidence from California-certified hydrogeologists the quarry is affecting one or more wells in the area and, after paying their own such expert to review the complaint, fund mitigation for those effects.
“We are confident the public will recognize that we have listened to the concerns of the community and that we are committed to becoming a trusted long-term partner with Madera County,” Goodrich-Welk said.
Other notable changes in the impact report are a mitigation where Vulcan must purchase carbon offset credits for any greenhouse gas output from trucks and equipment and an agreement with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District to also offset any emissions of nitrogen oxide.
Typically, carbon credits are ways for companies to compensate for pollutant emissions by funding resource conservation or other renewable energy projects.
Critics question commitment to enforcement
Bruce Gray, chairman of the quarry’s most vocal opponent, the Madera Oversight Coalition, contends the COA as well as the Final EIR don’t assure Vulcan will comply with any of those agreements.
“All these things they agree on, all these mitigations, they’re only good if they’re enforced,” said Gray, who has also long battled the Madera Quarry located on Road 209. “There’s no teeth to enforcing the mitigations, so they can say and do whatever they want.”
Matthew Treber, director of the county’s Community and Economic Development Department, said if Vulcan doesn’t comply with the COA or any other requirements, the conditional use permits necessary for the quarry to operate would be sent back to the planning commission for potential revocation.
Gray said the increases to traffic and pollution, along with other concerns will remain, regardless of any changes, including how there are no plans for a northbound lane on Highway 41.
The quarry, if approved and constructed as proposed, will operate for a maximum 100 years. It will mine up to 2.5 million tons of aggregate annually, of which the county will receive a fee of 10 cents per ton for the first five years of operations, with increasing fee amounts every five years.
If the estimated 250 million tons of materials are exhausted before 100 years, the quarry operations will cease at that time, with reclamation work funded by Vulcan to restore the site for water and wildlife, completed within three years per federal law.
The quarry will employ between 15 to 40 employees on site throughout its lifespan.
A 12-foot berm will be in place along Highway 145 to obstruct views of the aggregate processing plant to the southwest corner of the 671-acre site. From Highway 41, rock outcroppings will obstruct the public’s view from the mining area as well.
If approved, it’s expected the quarry’s Final EIR will be appealed, which would necessitate a discussion and vote by the Madera County Board of Supervisors for potential approval.
If you go
What: Madera County Planning Commission hearing on proposed Austin Quarry
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 19
Where: Board of Supervisors Chambers, Madera County Government Center, 200 W. Fourth St., Madera