AZUSA — The city has been sued by two environmental groups claiming that it was negligent in fashioning a compromise last year to allow a controversial rock quarry to continue mining Fish Canyon.
The suit--filed by the Forest Preservation Society and the Committee to Savethe Foothills--claims that the city has been negligent in the way it issues permits and oversees the 190-acre site mined by Azusa Rock Inc. A Pomona Superior Court Judge hasordered the city to respond by April 19.
The groups have asked the court to compel Azusa to set aside the compromise mapped out in a December City Council resolution, which renewed the 33-year-old permit while adding 13 conditions to decrease the quarry's negative environmental effects.
Despite the unanimous recommendation from the Planning Commission that the city revoke the permit, the council approved the compromise on a split vote. That ended nine months of legal and political saber rattling between the city, neighboring Duarte and Azusa Rock. Some of the agreement's major points restrict when and where quarrying is done, redirect truck traffic, limit blasting and give the city more oversight of the quarry.
The lawsuit asks Pomona Superior Court Judge Thomas F. Nuss to force the city to apply current state mining and environmental laws to the quarry. Such regulations would require a potentially lengthy and expensive environmental impact report, which the city and Azusa Rock contend is unnecessary because the quarry, which predates the statutes, is exempt from subsequent law.
In the suit, the groups contend that the city has knowingly skirted its duty under the California Environmental Quality Act, the Public Resources Code and the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1975.
"Aren't people entitled to the protections of the environmental laws?" asked David Allen James Sr., the leader of the Forest Preservation Society, an organization that claims a membership of 1,000 environmentalists, forest property owners and concerned corporations.
"They really have endeavored to escape having the operation conduct a full environmental impact report and opening it up to public comment."
James said the coalition wants the city to provide the maximum environmental safeguards.
In approving the December resolution, the council declared that the permit process was "categorically exempt" from the California Environmental Quality Act and that the permit could be amended without an environmental study.
City Atty. Peter Thorson declined full elaboration on Azusa's response to the suit but said the city will file its answers by April 4.
"We will oppose it," he said. "In our view, the resolution was lawful and the Council acted well within its legal authority," he said.
The attorney for Azusa Rock, Glenn R. Watson, issued a curt rebuttal to the lawsuit at Monday's council meeting, concluding: "Frankly, they don't have a case worth the paper it's printed on."
Azusa Rock was acquired earlier this year by CalMat Co. and Owl Rock Products Co. in a joint venture between the rock companies.
James' group was unsuccessful last year in an attempt to get a federal court to issue an injunction against the U.S. Forest Service and the county over a parking fee levied for the San Gabriel Canyon. Save the Foothills is the Azusa citizens group that helped lead the unsuccessful fight to close the quarry.
In the current lawsuit, one of the main arguments is that the city should have known that the original mining permit for the quarry was never valid. According to court filings, the Azusa Planning Commission granted a special use permit for quarrying to Fred Heyden in November, 1956. Despite a two-year extension, Heyden never finished construction of his quarry, and the permit should have expired, the suit alleges.
"No construction was done, and no quarrying operation whatsoever was conducted pursuant to the permit, and the permit therefore expired on May 31, 1958, according to its terms," the environmentalists say. Azusa Rock acquired the permit from Heyden.
The groups further claim that the continued quarrying operation has proved to be a detriment to the environment, dumping dust on residents, decreasing air quality, causing noise pollution, creating hillside instability, destroying the hillside aesthetics and damaging the indigenous wildlife in the canyon area.
The quarry is "reducing the mountain and canyon to a wasteland," the lawsuit states.
The city has also been deficient, the groups contend, in not forcing the quarry to file a state-mandated reclamation plan, and insuring that steps be taken to combat soil erosion, protect water quality from silt, protect fish and wildlife and reclaim the slopes. City officials said an adequate reclamation plan was filed last year.
Access an Issue
James also complained that the city has done nothing to protect public access to Fish Canyon, which has been alternately blocked by the quarry operations and fencing Azusa Rock has erected around the site. City officials said the quarry has made strides to restore access, as ordered by the compromise.
If the challenge by the environmentalists is successful, James is not sure whether the quarry could exist under the burden of current environmental laws, but suspects that it may not.
"It's my personal opinion, that that is probably an inappropriate location to locate a surface mine," he said.