Mark Macarro, tribal chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseo Indians, is… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)
A boulder-strewn mountain west of the Temecula Valley, created by violent mashing of tectonic plates during the Jurassic Period, holds more than 270 million tons of granite that's become as politically explosive as the dynamite that may eventually blow it to bits.
The ridge is an anonymous landmark for most drivers speeding south on the 15 Freeway toward Escondido, but to the Granite Construction Co., those gray rocks look like money.
Photos: Quarry plan meets resistance
The company plans to build a gargantuan rock quarry on the mountain that could supply concrete and asphalt to fast-growing northern San Diego County for the next 75 years.
But the proposed project has riled many in the community, who see it more as a threat to the area's future than an economic boon.
Among others, the project has stirred the ire of the influential Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, whose reservation and four-star resort casino lie near the foot of the peak. The proposed quarry is on private, non-reservation land on Pu`éska Mountain, tucked within a series of peaks that the Pechanga Band and other Luiseño people believe is the cradle of creation and place of origin for all Luiseño.
"We're kind of demanding here that our value system is not going to be trod on any longer," said Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro, lamenting that many of the Luiseño's sacred sites outside of tribal lands already have been lost to development.
And the Pechanga Band — which has contributed $351,000 to state politicians and California's Democratic and Republican parties in 2011 alone — is pushing legislation in Sacramento that would, in essence, outlaw rock mines near reservations.
The Pechanga Band's presence adds a twist to usual David-versus-Goliath disputes that play out in many far-flung towns over proposed mines, landfills and prisons, providing a counterweight to the political muscle of Granite Construction, a multimillion-dollar Northern California construction company that contributes generously to local and state politicians.
Adding to the intrigue has been the response by Temecula, one of the most conservative, pro-business nooks of the Inland Empire. The city has spent more than a half a million dollars to nix the project, and even mounted an unsuccessful attempt to annex the quarry site into the city limits.
The quarry's five-year march through Riverside County's permitting process has unleashed furious PR campaigns and counter-campaigns, trumpeting the project as an economic savior or black plague to the recession-flattened region.
The county's planning commission on Monday will hold its fifth hearing on the project, the first of which drew more than 1,000 people. No matter the vote, the 414-acre quarry site will end up with the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, where its fate remains a mystery. And the project will probably end up in court.
Officials with Granite Construction say the rock mine will produce 99 high-paying jobs and twice that number at outside firms that offer support to the mining operation. Company pamphlets also boast that the new rock mine will improve air quality: The local supply of aggregate rock will eliminate the need to haul concrete and asphalt from mines in Corona, Irwindale, Lake Elsinore and the Coachella Valley.
"The emissions and wear and tear on the roads will be lessened significantly," said Granite Co. spokeswoman Karie Reuther. "You'll eliminate 16 million truck miles every year and all the greenhouse gas emissions that go along with that.''
The mining company signed a pact with the South Coast Air Quality Management District to use low-emissions trucks to haul the gravel and sand from the quarry, and to provide constant air monitoring to ensure that hazardous contaminates or particulates don't drift into nearby neighborhoods. The mine will be hidden by a ridge, out of view of both Temecula and traffic on the interstate below, Reuther said.
Temecula City Councilman Jeff Comerchero, who boasts of being pro-business and a developer, dismisses Granite's assertions about the benefits to the local economy and environment.
He said having a mine perched over the city, with dynamite blasting away all day, will cripple Temecula's tourism industry. A study commissioned by the city estimated that the mine would reduce property values by $540 million and cause construction, tourism and retail sales to plummet, costing the region $80 million a year.
Two-thirds of the aggregate mined from the site — which will carve a 1,000-foot-deep hole in the mountain — is expected to be used in San Diego County, adding to Temecula's disenchantment.
"This is critical to the future quality of life to our citizens," Comerchero said. "I have a big problem with them coming in and saying they are doing this to make life better for everybody. It will generate $5 billion during the life of the quarry. That's a lot of incentive to get their project done at all costs."