When the well on Rob and Sissi Morton’s rural property next to a gravel mine went dry in late 2013, they knew who to blame.
Cemex, an international cement and gravel company, had suspended mining at its Stillwell site and stopped pumping water into a seepage ditch that recharges groundwater for an adjacent area that includes four homes.
“We lost a lot of fruit trees, and we lost our yard and the grass,” said Sissi Morton, who then had a medical condition and needed running water for frequent hand-washing to avoid infections.
Her husband rescued his family by hauling in water by the barrel on his truck.
Late last year, the Tulare County Planning Commission held a public hearing on whether the mine was violating its operating permit by failing to put water in the recharge ditch.
Commissioners put off a decision to give Cemex, neighbors and county officials time to negotiate a solution to the problem before a public hearing Feb. 25.
For now, water is back in the ditch and the neighbors’ wells have water again, but it took about a year.
Cemex, citing a report by its hydrologist, said the California drought caused the wells to go dry.
But Tom Cairns, owner of the Sierra Chief manufacturing plant next to Cemex’s Stillwell mine who has his own gravel mine in Tulare County, blasted the Cemex report as “full of hot air and no facts.”
The county hired its own hydrologist, who said the drought is a factor, but the failure of the mine operator to put water in the trench was also a cause.
Cemex said it stands by its report.
When the wells went dry, neighbors and others from Lemon Cove went to the county for help, eventually addressing the Board of Supervisors, which they say got the county staff to pay more attention to their plight.
“I’m extremely upset and angry at the county,” Rob Morton said. “They gave the permit to Cemex. They are responsible to enforce all of the conditions of the permit.”
The permit states the ditch “shall contain a sufficient amount of water ... to maintain water levels in neighboring wells.”
Cemex said that requirement applies when the company is actually mining.
The permit also states, “if a significant problem can be demonstrated ... to be caused by mining activities, then immediate action must be taken to correct the condition ... ”
Mike Spata, director of the Tulare County Resource Management Agency, said neighbors and others may argue that the mining permit always requires water in the ditch, but in the context of the whole permit “there’s sufficient ambiguity that a different conclusion can be reached.”
The Planning Commission is in the process of determining the facts and could revoke, enforce or modify the permit, or take no action, he said. Enforcement could include fines.
The Mortons have lived on their acre-and-a-half rural property since 2001. Mining began several years later.
Morton said Cemex kept the recharge ditch supplied with water until September 2013. Three months later his 17-foot-deep well went dry.
Morton, a heavy equipment operator, started hauling water in 55-gallon drums from Visalia “two to three times a week,” he said, pumping it into the plumbing to have running water, which was especially important for his wife’s medical needs.
That went on for almost nine months, he said.
After several months of rising tensions, the county told Cemex to put water in the ditch.
“We demanded it,” Spata said.
But Cemex said it restored water to the ditch “in anticipation of beginning to mine” again, not because the county demanded it. Water to the ditch resumed in September 2014.
Neighbors insist the county was too slow to act.
“The county should have immediately asked them to turn it back on,” Cairns said.
But Spata said that “the county moved at a rapid rate of speed” considering the complexity of groundwater issues.
The county also delivered bottled water to the neighbors and is participating in negotiations to seek a resolution, he said.
Mine neighbor Orville Cloud, 82, a retired fruit ranch foreman, and his wife have lived next to the mine property for 17 years.
When their well went dry, they took showers at their daughter’s home, he said. Luckily for them, the landlord owns a well nearby that did not go dry, so he piped water to their home and that’s what they use now, he said.
“The county should have never let them mine,” Cloud said. “They put those sinkholes out there and it drained our water.”
Cemex offered to drill a community well for the neighborhood, but neighbors said the company would contribute only $12,000 to the project. The cost would be several times that amount, and the neighbors would have to pay the difference.
They found a lawyer, but so far have not filed suit against either the county or Cemex.
“We want to negotiate a settlement,” said attorney Raymond Carlson of Hanford. “We don’t want to have litigation.”
Cemex spokeswoman Jolene Polyack said the company hopes to reach “a mutually beneficial solution.”