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Mining proposal maddens Duarte

Concerned about increased air pollution and a marred landscape, many residents in the community next to the San Gabriels are protesting a firm's plan to relocate operations to a scenic ridge.

March 18, 2010|By Corina Knoll
  • John and Martha Jansen enjoy the views of the San Gabriel Mountains from the second-floor deck of their Duarte home. The couple are worried the proposed mining operation will compromise children's health and damage wildlife.
John and Martha Jansen enjoy the views of the San Gabriel Mountains from… (Christina House / For The…)

The mountains that rise above their Duarte home have served as both backdrop and recurring character in the lives of John and Martha Jansen. On clear nights, John takes to the ridges with his telescope and amateur astronomy guides. Martha finds quiet inspiration for her oil paintings in the panoramic view of the peaks.

In summers past, the couple often took their six children on treks in search of the famed 80-foot, three-tiered waterfalls hidden in the mountains' ravines. A few years ago, one of their sons hiked up a trail with his girlfriend to show her the "marry me" poster atop his parents' roof.

So a mining company's proposal to shift operations to a ridge above Duarte has angered the Jansens, who are pained at the thought of another hillside being scarred by excavation work. And although the 80 acres of land in question are not visible from their home and are located in adjacent Azusa, they have joined hundreds of residents in protest of what they believe will lead to an increase in air pollution and a marred landscape.

"Azusa is our neighbor, and neighbors should really try to get along," Martha Jansen, 66, said. "But when it comes to the health of the children and the damage of the wildlife and plants that are native to the area, sometimes we have to fight for what is right."

Mining has been woven into Azusa's fabric since the discovery of gold in the 1850s at the fork of San Gabriel Canyon. The treasure of the canyons has since become hard granite that is crushed into aggregate used to construct highways and pave riverbeds.

The area that has the Jansens and others worried is at the mouth of Fish Canyon, where mining has been going on for decades, although not without complaint.

Azusa cleared the way for excavation in the canyon when it approved a 50-year mining permit in 1988. At the time, Duarte residents unsuccessfully campaigned to have the site closed. The latest proposal has again galvanized many in the bedroom community of 22,000.

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Vulcan Materials, the company now on the site, wants to shift its operations so it can mine 80 acres that border Duarte. Vulcan originally planned to mine an eastern section of its 270 acres but says the land near Duarte is less visible, which is in keeping with Azusa's General Plan.

The company's proposal also mandates concurrent reclamation of the hillsides using a technique called micro-benching, which allows for greater revegetation than the approach that Vulcan now uses, a method that leaves pyramid steps about 40-feet high and 25-feet deep. As it stands now, reclamation is not required until 2038.

Despite air quality and environmental reports that show the rock quarry will have no major effect on Duarte aside from aesthetics, many residents say that years of living near the mines have given them reason to worry.

During recent months, locals have flooded Azusa city meetings. At one session, a pro-Vulcan speaker was booed. During another, police were called to remove a Duarte resident who was told he couldn't make a PowerPoint presentation.

Duarte Mayor Margaret Finlay has been outspoken about her desire to rid the area of mining altogether. In February, she rode her bike to Azusa City Hall to drop off hundreds of letters protesting the proposal. She also raised the possibility of boycotting Azusa businesses.

"This isn't about Duarte and Azusa," the mayor insisted. "Vulcan is not being a good neighbor and they are clearly trying to split our community. They ought to just pack up their marbles and go someplace else, not a valley that is beautiful and where people live because they love these mountains."

Vulcan spokesman Todd Priest said some people appear to have lost sight of the issue: It's not whether mining will occur -- it will -- but where.

Under the proposal, Vulcan will have to reduce its mining by more than 4 million tons, a positive gain for residents that Priest said has been undercut by the political agenda of Duarte officials.

In January, the Duarte city manager sent a "confidential settlement communication" to his counterpart in Azusa suggesting that the cities' jurisdictional boundaries be redrawn in light of the mining proposal. It essentially would have ceded several corners of Azusa to Duarte.

Francis Delach said no thanks.

Although future mining tax revenues for Azusa could range from $500,000 to $1 million annually and Vulcan donates to local organizations, including a program for at-risk children, Delach said the project is being weighed on its environmental merits.

"We're one of the few cities in the entire area where we've not had layoffs or cut programs or services. We are not financially hurting," he said. The true benefit to the city, Delach said, is the immediate reclamation of the hillsides.

That's a bonus that Azusa resident Mercedes Castro, 58, said makes the proposal agreeable, especially since fighting Vulcan would take a costly lawsuit and do nothing for the already scarred hillsides.

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