Saying the mining company should have started its environmental process earlier, Fresno County supervisors gave CEMEX three years to finish its EIR instead of four.
Supervisor Brian Pacheco said at Tuesday’s packed board meeting that given the multi-billion-dollar company’s size and resources, CEMEX should have known to start the process sooner for securing an extension for its quarry along the San Joaquin River.
Rocks, gravel, and sand from the site go into homes and roads throughout Fresno and Madera counties.
Reducing the deadline by a year was intended to “hold them to the fire,” Pacheco said of CEMEX.
“They should have started sooner to get this done,” Pacheco said. “Because this is so important to not only their 100 employees, but to the county and the Valley as a whole, that should have started sooner. But none of us are perfect so who am I to throw rocks?”
Now city officials will have to decide whether to pursue legal action against the decision.
“Now that the City has exhausted all administrative remedies, we will need to decide whether to initiate litigation in this matter,” said Fresno City Attorney Andrew Janz. “The County’s reliance on the outdated EIR is improper and does not accurately reflect the true environmental impact CEMEX’s operation has on Fresno neighborhoods, open spaces, and streets. All options are on the table at this point.”
Company EIR Four Years in the Making, Says They Will Need More
The company requested the EIR process in 2019. The mining company’s permit to operate along the San Joaquin River is set to expire on July 28.
They had requested to dig down to 600 feet at their current location near Friant Dam for the rocks, sand, and gravel necessary for concrete and asphalt.
In order to do so, an Environmental Impact Report is required. But citing delays from the pandemic, the county said it would not be finished in time.
The city of Fresno appealed a decision from the Fresno County Planning Commission giving the company four more years to finish the document, which sent the decision before the board.
Pacheco said changing the extension to three years delivers a compromise between the company, the need for construction materials, the city of Fresno, and environmental advocates.
Brandau: ‘Tough Decisions’ on Mining Need to Be Made
Advocates of the San Joaquin River want to protect the river. At the same time, builders say the need for aggregate near Fresno is essential to keep costs low.
Supervisor Steve Brandau said as a board member of the San Joaquin River Conservancy and as a business advocate, he keeps one foot in both worlds of the debate.
Aggregate is expensive to haul, with some contractors saying as much as 80% of cost for gravel and cement goes to freight.
Wyatt Meadows, district representative for Operating Engineers Local Union 3 said shutting down CEMEX would affect the entire construction industry.
“I want to honor that San Joaquin River but I have another foot in the other world, too, which I have to look at, how we build and provide building materials for our entire county and really, our entire region,” Brandau.
County Official: May Have to Consider A Future Extension
CEMEX Attorney Patrick Mitchell told supervisors that based on previous EIRs for mining companies he has worked with, the four years is needed considering the rigors of environmental review in California.
Counties handle the EIR processes, contracting with third parties to study 19 different categories of impacts, from traffic to emissions to noise. Not all 19 are considered in every case.
Once the document is released — usually several hundred pages in length — the public has a chance to comment on the document. Before the EIR can be completed, county staff must respond to every single comment. Some responses may be shorter.
But Deputy Director of Fresno County Public Works and Planning Bernard Jimenez said for technical comments, sometimes another study is needed and then the EIR must be recirculated publicly.
Jimenez told supervisors it was very possible they would have to approve another extension.
Supervisor Steve Brandau, who sits on the board of the San Joaquin River Conservancy and whose district includes portions of the San Joaquin River, said he had “zero problem facing this whole situation again in a couple years.”
“If we have to do it, we have to do it,” Brandau said.
The county is still a few months from releasing the draft EIR to the public, according to county staff.
Other mining approvals, including one in Madera, took four years once the draft EIR was released to the public.
CEMEX officials said they were happy with the decision.
“We’re very pleased with the three-year extension, would we have liked four? Obviously. But with the support from the board today and their action to say ‘we need to get this done…’ I think that was evident today in their ruling for three years,” said Debbie Wells, West Region Director for CEMEX.
CEMEX Hearing Drew Packed Crowd, Neighbors, Employees, City Officials
Opponents and supporters of the extension split the chamber, with the agenda item taking 90 minutes.
Board vice chairman Nathan Magsig — whose district includes the CEMEX facility — began the discussion by asking county staff what the extension means.
County staff told Magsig that CEMEX is in compliance with its current operating permit. The extension does not allow the company to expand beyond what was originally allowed.
Jennifer Clark, director of the Planning and Development Department with the city of Fresno, said the number of vehicle trips and the amount of aggregate extracted from the mining site has been out of compliance since the original EIR dating to 1986.
The multiple pedestrian and bicyclist deaths on Friant Road over the past five years can be attributed to increased traffic as the region expanded — something the authors of the 1986 EIR didn’t account for, Clark said.
She said the average number of vehicle trips on Friant Road has increased as much as six-and-a-half times the 9,770 daily trips originally accounted for on some roads.
But Magsig said a lot of the traffic is due to the northbound expansion of Fresno. And, when asked by Magsig whether the amount of aggregate mined from the site exceeded previous totals, attorney Mitchell said they would have run out if that was the case.
Parkway Official: Restore the River
Other members of the public want to see the river restored.
Sharon Weaver, executive director of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, said a presenter had told the nonprofit that with the amount of aggregate mined from around the river, a two-lane highway could be built around the world.
“We have taken a lot from this river, when are we going to start giving back to the river instead?” Weaver said.
Cody Hamilton, an employee with CEMEX said he was worried if he would have a job in the next 10 days if the county didn’t approve the extension.
CEMEX makes a low-emission ready-mix concrete out of their plant that isn’t made in nearby plants, said a CEMEX employee.
Fresno City Councilman Mike Karbassi said the city’s concerns are legitimate but that the time for discussion should be when the EIR is released.
“When it comes to when to have that conversation, it’s when we have that new revised EIR,” Karbassi said.