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Grounds for anger

The state is starting to shift the pain of mining gravel and sand

By Tom Knudson - Bee Staff Writer

Published Sunday, August 17, 2003


 Grounds for Anger Photo Gallery

Three years ago, the view from Cheryl Millican's waterfront home on a quiet bay north of Vancouver, British Columbia, was exquisite.

Each day brought a fresh palette of wave and wind. Sunsets were sublime -- splashes of lilac, streaks of rose and layers of lemon that transformed evening meals on the deck with her husband and son into artistic events.

In Sechelt, British Columbia, residents Cheryl Millican and husband Russell McCrone show the view they once had -- before the conveyor belt that links Canadian sand and gravel to California construction.
Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

View Gallery: Grounds for Anger

Now she looks out upon a conveyor belt that links Canada's largest gravel pit to the biggest public works project in California: the $2.6 billion reconstruction of the east span of the Bay Bridge. Her view is history. The noise is unnerving. And the dust, which clings to her cupboards and laminates her floors, is overwhelming.

"I cannot physically keep up with it," said Millican, a high school math teacher.

Historically, California has turned to its own mountains, rivers and floodplains for sand and gravel. But today, the state's passion for protecting its own back yard from the dust, noise and scars of mining and its penchant for building homes over rich reserves is beginning to shift the pain of producing those natural resources to other landscapes and cultures.


In a small desert town in Baja California, another teacher walks across a playground where chalky-white particles hang like mist in the sky. Last year, a mining boom stirred up so much grit, her students fell ill.

At Valle de Las Palmas, a youngster watches as a gravel truck stirs up dust.
Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

"Oh my God, it was bad," said Maria Isabel Corona, who teaches elementary school in Valle de las Palmas, a rural village south of Tecate. "Some of the kids had throat problems, others coughs."

Gone are dense pockets of brush that sheltered wildlife, thick mats of sand that absorbed the blow of flash floods. Today, the arroyo where miners worked is a wasteland of pits and chasms where trees not toppled by heavy equipment cling to pillars of sand, their roots exposed to the desert sun.

Until the governor of Baja California Norte halted mining here last February, citing the "plundering" of natural resources, sand from this region also flowed to California.

"The only ones winning are the Americans," said Guadalupe Uribe, a local farmhand. "This community is losing, and the environment is, too."

California's hunger for sand and gravel -- the two main ingredients in concrete and asphalt -- is enormous. In 2000, the state devoured 228 million tons, enough "aggregate" to build an eight-lane freeway from Sacramento to New York -- 3 percent more than second-place Texas.

No two minerals are more vital or less glamorous. Mixed with cement, sand and gravel not only form the concrete shell of California's famous transportation infrastructure, they prop up much of the rest of the state. Home foundations, parking lots, shopping center walls, government dams, boat ramps, irrigation canals -- all are made from sand and gravel.

Yet few people want to live next to a quarry.

"I cannot think of any location that embraces this kind of land use," said Linda Falasco, executive director of the Construction Materials Association of California, which represents sand and gravel producers.

"Years ago, we were out in the middle of nowhere and nobody cared," she said. "In the last 30 years, people have grown up around us.

"Every citizen in California demands a particular lifestyle, yet they do not want to take responsibility for the things it takes to support that lifestyle. We need sand and gravel."

A powerful force helps keep California's consumption of sand and gravel strong: its enormous road-building program, including the reconstruction of the Bay Bridge and Gov. Gray Davis' $5.3 billion plan to reduce traffic congestion.

The governor's plan "has sparked an aggregate rush throughout the state, particularly in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay regions," wrote Susan Kohler, a senior geologist with the California Office of Mine Reclamation, in a U.S. Geological Survey report in 2000. Yet new mines "continue to be locally controversial," she added, citing "intense land-use competition (and) wide-ranging environmental concerns."

Sand and gravel are among the most abundant non-fuel minerals on earth. "There's no way you could ever run out of it," said William Langer, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. "It would mean we would have to consume our planet."

Few states are richer than California, which sits atop an estimated 81 billion tons, enough to last 350 years -- at current rates of consumption -- without importing one truckload. Even 19th-century settlers and miners could not help but notice the bounty.


The gold that sparked California's most famous mining boom, in 1849, was sluiced and screened from sand and gravel. William Brewer -- a member of California's first geological survey -- waxed poetic about gravel near Hollister in 1861.

"Around this place rise high hills, entirely of stratified gravel ... which has been washed down from the mountains and has formed a deposit of incredible thickness," he wrote in his classic text, "Up and Down California in 1860-1864." "It is cut into steep bluffs, in many places six hundred or more feet high. And the hills of the same material rise 1800 feet high. It must have a thickness of at least two thousand feet, or nearly half a mile!"

A bulldozer scoops rock and pushes it down the cliff to be picked up at a gravel pit in San Diego. Sites like this are becoming harder to develop in California because of environmental laws and the fact that people don't want them in their backyard.
Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

Yet last year, a California Department of Conservation report quietly warned of coming shortages, saying permitted aggregate resources are running low in many areas -- including Sacramento County -- and that "it is unlikely that a significant portion of (non-permitted) resources will ever be mined due to social, environmental or economic factors."

Large quantities of sand and gravel began arriving in California -- by barge and rail from Mexico and ocean tanker from Canada -- within just the past two years. Last year, imports reached a record 2.4 million tons, up from 900,000 tons in 2001. Before that, imports were so small the state didn't record them.

A simple economic force makes such long-distance hauls possible: cheap bulk ocean transportation. Shipping 60,000 tons of gravel 1,000 miles by tanker from Canada to San Francisco costs $240,000 to $300,000. Trucking the same amount 60 miles from Stockton is much pricier -- $500,000 to $600,000.

The amount of Mexican and Canadian sand and gravel coming to California is a modest 1 percent of state consumption. But it is expected to grow. And some worry about the consequences.

"What we're doing is forcing impacts into other countries," said Doug Sprague, manager of reclamation at Vulcan Materials Company, a Los Angeles sand and gravel producer. "From an ethical and social justice standpoint, is that really what we should be doing?"

California has a law designed to prevent shortages of sand and gravel: the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act. But despite the law's requirement that local jurisdictions include information about sand and gravel reserves in their general plans and adopt policies for their management, many refuse to permit mining for environmental and other reasons.

One such drama recently played out in the Russian River valley in Sonoma County, which, for much of the 20th century, was a key source of gravel for some of the Bay Area's most important construction projects, including the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, built in the 1930s.

But as the region grew popular for its wineries, art galleries, boutiques and recreational opportunities -- such as kayaking, hiking and salmon fishing -- gravel miners found themselves no longer welcome. Disputes over truck traffic, dust, noise, damage to farmland, water resources and wildlife habitat have been legion.

In 1994, Sonoma County supervisors took action: Despite a California Department of Conservation "mineral land classification" report identifying the county's reserves as regionally significant, supervisors voted to eliminate mining from gravel-rich lands along the river by 2004. "We think it's a step forward," a supervisor said at the time.

More recently, listing of salmon as "threatened" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act has brought increased scrutiny from the federal government and environmentalists. One proposal to expand mining in the river ran into stiff resistance, followed by a Sierra Club lawsuit in late 2001.

"With three listed (salmon) species ... and 500,000 people depending on a healthy river for their naturally-filtered water, it's time to think seriously about restoring the river," wrote Margaret Pennington, chair of a local Sierra Club chapter in a newsletter.

For Hanson Aggregates, a major gravel producer that shut down its Russian River quarry in May, the message was clear: Get your gravel somewhere else. But where?

"I've looked at all the options," said Bill Berger, vice president of operations for Hanson, which in the 1990s bought out Kaiser Sand and Gravel -- a fixture in California aggregate for much of the 20th century.

"I've been to the Eel River, the Yuba gold fields near Marysville. I've been to Alturas, Sierraville." Pointing to a map in Hanson's Pleasanton office, Berger gestured toward reserves near Tracy. He shook his head.

"Gravel is such a heavyweight product you can't haul it long distances by truck economically," he said. "And there are other factors to consider, like traffic congestion and pollution."

Outside the Pleasanton office is one of California's biggest quarries: the Radum pit, another source for the Bay Bridge. But in 2001, after 80 years of operation, Radum ran out of rock. Nearby are more reserves -- covered by homes.

Hanson's predicament is typical. Statewide, "permitting new supplies has become more expensive and time-consuming," wrote Russell Miller, a senior geologist with the California Department of Conservation, in California Geology in 1997. "As fewer companies are able to afford this, their number and the number of mines have decreased."

Miller reported that:

* The number of aggregate mines in the Bay Area fell by nearly a third, from 32 to 23 in the 1980s and 90s, and from 81 to 56 in Southern California.

* The state's largest new deposit of aggregate, a seam of rock north of San Diego, had not been mined because "the neighboring community has objected to having a large rock quarry nearby."

* Though rich in rock, western Ventura County had just run out of the deposits it was willing to tap. Today, the area trucks in gravel from Palmdale, 75 miles away. That trucking "increases road wear, adds engine emissions to the air and depletes fossil fuels," Miller wrote.

"One problem is the aggregate industry, through misbehavior by people in the past, and a few today, got a bad reputation of being noisy and dirty and ugly," Langer, the geologist, said. "There are many people trying to turn that around. But it lingers on."

Solutions are not obvious -- or easy. Industry officials say the state should aggressively identify new reserves and develop a program to protect them -- just as it protects farmland. But such an effort runs counter to California's tradition of local land-use decision-making.

Environmentalists say companies should turn to more distant in-state reserves, such as the gravel-choked Yuba gold fields, even if transporting the gravel is expensive.

"It's just the cost we have to pay to restore our fishery," said Brian Hines, a member of Trout Unlimited in Sonoma County. Companies "have enjoyed decades of cheap gravel, and now it's time to pay for past damage by getting it somewhere else."

As the Hanson company's reserves dwindled, Berger grew restless. He was grasping for gravel, searching for sand at a crucial moment, as concrete companies turned to his company and others to supply scores of high-profile Bay Area job sites, from high-rise office buildings around Pacific Bell Park to the Bay Bridge project.

Then Berger and his colleagues hit pay dirt. They found a huge deposit of aggregate outside the purview of California county supervisors and state and federal environmental laws, too. They found it in Canada, at that nation's largest sand and gravel pit overlooking the Strait of Georgia and the tourist community of Sechelt.

But in importing 1.5 to 2 million tons of aggregate from Canada a year -- enough to cover a football field, end zone to end zone, at least 470 feet high -- Hanson contributed to a mining surge that has Canadians fuming over the very things Californians object to about mining: dust, noise and denuded landscapes.


"First impressions are important," said Nancy MacLarty, a former Sechelt mayor. "When you drive into Sechelt, the first impression you get is of this big gravel pit.

A Canadian Shipping Lines tanker -- the "Spirit" -- loads up with sand and gravel bound for California within sight of an Indian burial ground near Sechelt, B.C.
Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

"At night, you hear loons and it's wonderful," she continued. "Then, you hear the rock crusher: Ba-woom! Ba-woom! Ba-woom! It's jarring. ... This is not 'Super Natural British Columbia' " -- a phrase used by the province to promote tourism.

Few things are more controversial than the conveyor belt, a long, narrow forest of metal jutting into the ocean, built three years ago to load California-bound tankers. The conveyor slices through Cheryl Millican's watercolor sunsets.

"We've gone from a pristine waterfront to an industrial area," said her husband, Russell McCrone. On some days, wind sweeps powdery grit into their home. "It's not about wiping up dust. It's about wiping up dirt," said Millican. "It's constant."

Ray Collier, vice president of Lehigh Northwest, which owns the mine, said: "We try to respond to people's concerns the best we can.

"We've spent a lot of money on dust suppression," he said. "When you have wind and exposed soil, you do get some dusting. We've set up noise monitors." But he added: "One of the things about being a large operation in a small community is every noise gets blamed on the operation.

"I used to visit people's houses when they complained about a specific noise. One by one, we'd shut down pieces of equipment until ... we had shut down the entire plant. And the noise was still there," Collier said.

It's not just the mine that bothers some residents. It's where the aggregate is going: to environmentally friendly California.

"It doesn't make us too happy," said Gertrude Pacific, a Sechelt artist and activist. "You're protecting your resources while going after everyone else's. But isn't that one of America's unalienable rights: the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness -- and other people's resources?"

Berger views the subject differently. "We'd be happy to put another quarry in California," he said. "But finding land is very, very tough. You can spend many years and millions of dollars and, at the end of the day, be unsuccessful."

In the dry, lion-colored hills of northern Mexico, California's hunger for sand caused similar conflict and consternation last year.

"While you are protecting your own resources, you are destroying a way of life here," said Rene Ismael Panduro, a truck driver in the small town of Valle de las Palmas 15 miles south of the border town of Tecate.

Working feverishly, dozens of Mexican heavy equipment operators tore into river beds across large parts of northern Baja California, excavating sand and -- according to government officials -- trucking it to the border where it was put on rail cars and shipped to San Diego County.


In their wake, they left freakish landscapes, pockmarked by craters and canyons 15 to 20 feet deep. Arroyos that once soaked up rainwater now whisk it away, causing groundwater levels to drop and some wells to dry up, local residents say.

"They came from all over, pulling sand out of the river every which way," said Olga Arguilez Adams, a rancher and president of a federal agricultural colony in Valle de las Palmas. "Tremors from trucks cracked walls, broke windows." And Arguilez added: "We were eating dust all day long."

"Most of the kids in town suffered from respiratory problems. They had runny noses, runny eyes, allergies," she said.

At the Ensenada shipping port, Bill Berger, Hanson's vice president of operations, checks the quality of gravel and sand that is to be shipped to San Diego by barge.
Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

"Sometimes, teachers even canceled physical education classes because it was hard for the kids to be outside," said Maria Isabel Corona, a teacher and principal of the morning shift at the town's elementary school. "They were coughing. They were tired. They were running to drink water because they had dry throats."

In all, about 250 children were affected. Many were shuffled across the street to a rural clinic.

The long-term health impacts of such exposure, if any, are unknown, though links to lung disease have been found among some mine workers elsewhere. But certainly, dust from sand and gravel "may irritate the nose, throat and respiratory tract. ... Coughing, sneezing and shortness of breath may occur," according to a U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration report.

"The doctor kept saying, 'These kids are suffering from the dust,' " Arguilez said. "He said we need to do something about it."

Angry parents took to the streets in protest, halting the trucks -- and catching the attention of Baja Gov. Eugenio Elorduy, who last February seized a train at the border, stopped the mining and criticized exports to California.

"The gentlemen in the United States, particularly San Diego County ... should start mining their own sand. They have their own riverbeds," Elorduy told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "Over there you can't even move a little flower. Baja California has become the place to come and get sand to meet California's needs."

Benny Wright, a shareholder in Carrizo Gorge Railway, the U.S. firm importing sand from Valle de las Palmas, said his company behaved properly.

"Our supplier had all the proper permits," Wright said. "He had a water truck to keep the dust down. He took good care of the town and the people. He mined like you would mine in the U.S."

Nonetheless, the train remains halted just south of the border -- filled with heaping mounds of sand. "It's a bunch of baloney," Wright said. "It's been sitting there forever."

Recently, Bernardo Martínez Aguirre, Baja's lieutenant governor, told The Bee the situation had been aggravated by inadequate environmental oversight in Mexico. "Our regulations are very poor," he said. "We took action because the people demanded it."


Jorge Escobar Martínez, director of Baja California's ecology department, said officials are working to sharpen the state's regulatory authority -- and determine how much sand can be excavated without harming the environment.

"Natural ecosystems were devastated. There was excessive environmental impact." -- Jorge Escobar Martínez, director of Baja California's ecology department, on the impact of the mining boom in Baja.
Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

"Natural ecosystems were devastated," he said. "There was excessive environmental impact."

The region remains scarred today. Walking through one denuded area, Arguilez -- the colony president -- grew angry. "This is a real no man's land. And nobody is doing anything to fix it. ... Nothing at all." She worries that in a flash flood, water will carom wildly through the trenches and craters, eroding farmland and threatening the town.

The controversy also touched Hanson Aggregates, which had formed a joint venture in 2001 with a Mexican businessman to export Baja sand to San Diego, via barge. Although the company, Petreos del Pacifico, does not operate in Valle de las Palmas, its exports were halted, too.

They have since resumed but not before a few nervous moments -- and a handful of minor citations unrelated to the environment. "This was a real education for us," said David Hummel, president of Hanson's Pacific Southwest Region in San Diego. "It's certainly been a bumpy start."

Swinging his vehicle into a marine terminal in Ensenada, Roberto Curiel -- Hanson's Mexican partner -- sounded like a proud father as he pointed out neat mounds of sand and gravel awaiting shipment to California. "You don't see any dust. We are very careful about these issues.


"Before I had engineers and architects; now I have environmental advisers and lawyers," he said. "If I'm doing something wrong, I will shut down. I will fix it."

"We are very careful about these issues. ... If I'm doing something wrong, I will shut down. I will fix it." -- Roberto Curiel, Hanson Aggregates' partner in Mexico, on his sand-extraction operation in Baja.
Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

South of Ensenada, where Petreos del Pacifico blasts rock from the side of a mountain, then crushes and separates it into sand and gravel, is an example of something rare: mining and its neighbors getting along.

When a community of poor farm workers settled illegally near the mine recently, then complained about dust, noise and flying rocks, Curiel took action: He bought land down the road and moved the neighborhood.

"It's better here," said one resident, Christina Soliz, 26. Pregnant, she lives in a plywood shack with her four children and husband. Their floor is dirt; their roof a faded blue tarp.

"We have land," Soliz said. "Our children are safe. The company treats us well."

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