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VALLEY BUSINESS | OIL AND MINING ENTERPRISES

Proposed Sand and Gravel Pit Faces Rocky Road

Construction: Santa Clarita complains it shouldn't have to endure dirty air and noise from nearby excavation to benefit the local building industry.

September 19, 2000|GREG RISLING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CANYON COUNTRY — Beneath the scrubby hillsides east of Santa Clarita are millions of tons of sand and gravel--two precious commodities for the booming building industry in Southern California.

At least five companies already excavate gravel in the area. But a proposal by Azusa-based Transit Mixed Concrete to dig 78 million tons from a 460-acre site just outside the Santa Clarita city limits has residents fuming.

The city of Santa Clarita is formally opposing the project, saying the mining will turn the air brown with dust particles and create a constant din of truck traffic and excavation.

Transit Mixed Concrete says its project is vital for the local building industry, which needs the sand and gravel (also known as aggregate) to make concrete.

That opinion is backed by a state official, who says local aggregate reserves are running low and that builders need to have a relatively close supply of sand and gravel so that the material is affordable.

"Los Angeles County is the single heaviest user of permitted reserves in the state," said Russ Miller, who works for the state Division of Mines and Geology and wrote a 1994 report on aggregate resources in Southern California.

"As long as we have a growing population, we will have a growing demand for aggregate," he said.

Residents, however, say they shouldn't carry the burden for the entire county.

"We can't handle the entire responsibility because we are a small area," Santa Clarita City Councilwoman Laurene Weste said. "I think if you look at the cumulative impacts of this project, it is disastrous both health-wise and economically for the county."

Weste said the Transit Mixed project is much larger than any of the existing mines in the area, none of which are more than 250 acres in size.

In part, the fight reflects the changing nature of the Santa Clarita Valley. Once a rural outpost noted for oil refineries and farms--and even a munitions factory--the area is increasingly dominated by suburban homes.

A noisy, dirty mine, city officials say, doesn't fit into their long-range development plans.

"We don't see any benefits with this project," said Maria Rountree, intergovernmental relations officer for the city of Santa Clarita. "The scale of this project, its location and its potential hazards make it a bad deal."

Critics also say not enough has been done to mine existing sources.

Company spokesman Brian Mastin countered that mining companies would need further permits to dig deeper and wider to obtain a very small amount of materials.

"We've reached our limits, but it isn't impossible we could do more there," he said. "Highly unlikely, though. Regardless, the county will run out of permitted reserves. The county is going to need every ton of aggregate it can get."

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which owns the surface mining rights at the site, certified the project last month. But the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission voted unanimously against granting a mining permit, saying the environmental impacts outweighed the importance of aggregate in the county. The company has appealed that decision to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which is scheduled to review the project Oct. 24.

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According to the environmental impact report, the mine would operate 17 hours a day, from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Trucks would make an estimated 700 trips daily to and from the mine.

"They are going to take down an entire mountain," Rountree said. "You can't tell me that the project won't make a significant difference with adverse effects."

But the mining industry considers Soledad Canyon one of the last locations in the county where aggregate should be tapped. The area has about 1.1 billion tons of unpermitted aggregate, about two-thirds of the county's resources, according to the 1994 state report written by Miller. Since obtaining the appropriate permits is a long and tedious process, according to industry experts, only about 21% of that amount is available for mining purposes.

The BLM decision, for example, allows Transit Mixed to produce and sell 56 million tons of sand and gravel on the 460-acre site. Another 22 million tons judged too fine for construction would be returned to the pit.

Some opponents saw the BLM decision as self-serving because the federal agency will receive $28 million in royalties if the project goes forward. The money will be split among the county, state and federal governments for future projects.

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But Miller said the county's aggregate supply will be depleted by 2016. In the San Fernando Valley, the picture is far worse. Sand and gravel may run out by next year, he said.

The healthy economy has contributed to the demand for the materials, which are used to build new homes and repair roads. Between 1980 and 1992, the amount of aggregate produced in Los Angeles County was 381 million tons, 24% more than was originally projected in that period, Miller said.

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