Should It Really Take Seven Years To Decide on a Limestone Quarry?

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By Christopher M. Hopkins, The Saint Consulting Group

The Liberty Quarry application was rejected by Riverside County, California after a seven-year approval process which ended last month after a lengthy public hearing process. Granite Construction first applied for a permit to mine 135 acres of a 414-acre parcel for limestone in March — of 2005.

That’s seven years to determine if a limestone quarry should be allowed to operate. Seven years and untold millions of dollars in costs borne both by Granite Construction and Riverside County, not to mention the thousands of hours put in by the county, the company and residents of the area.

Can’t there be a more efficient process to decide if applications such as this should be approved or denied?

I have been following the Liberty situation for the past five years, watching the strategies of both the applicants and the opposition through the process. As usual, the opposition went overboard. Temecula Mayor Chuck Washington was claiming by the end of the process that “quarry related pollution” would directly lead to the deaths of 146 people over the life of the quarry.

Now that, in my opinion, is irresponsible at best, and at worst, downright negligent. It’s also the kind of hyperbole that helps drag out the basic permitting of a quarry into a seven-year ordeal.

The City of Temecula, obviously not satisfied with results of studies done by the California EPA, the California Air Resource Board and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, spent another $20,000 of tax dollars to run a model through a consulting firm to come up with its own results that produced Mayor Washington’s projected death count. The “model” also projected $957 million in local economic costs due to “quarry related illnesses.”

The applicant made the argument that the quarry will create 300 new jobs and generate $300 million in local sales tax revenue over its operating life. What the applicant failed to do well is make its case a personal argument.

What do I mean by that?

Minerals, especially limestone, are used by every one of us every day. But the industry has done a poor job educating the public about this.  Would residents be less likely to oppose a limestone quarry after they understand that the average home contains 400 tons of limestone? Or that they traveled on 39,000 tons of aggregate for every mile of paved road getting to the hearing? Or that it is a vital ingredient needed for makeup, for toothpaste, for food?

Some people surely would be less likely to oppose a quarry (although you will always have the faction that might admit it is essential but still want to go to your town to get it). Either way, we as an industry and individual companies need to do a better job of promoting our materials and educating the public.

In Riverside County, what we ended up with was a battle of the experts. Both sides in this saga produced studies stating that their position was the correct one. Both sides had lawyers, college professors and assorted “experts” who came up with exact opposite conclusions based upon the same data. The Planning Commission held six public hearings and had 52 hours of public testimony before voting on its recommendation.

The project ultimately was defeated when the Riverside County Commission denied the application. Granite Construction conducted unprecedented community outreach, completed every study and report that was required and requested, and tried to address the complaints and myths put forth by the community. But there was an underlying feeling that this application was going to be defeated all along regardless of the science.

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors in its decision to deny the application referred to the “alleged benefits” to the community. These “alleged benefits” included an additional $350 million in tax revenue between sales and property taxes, jobs for a depressed county in a down economy and the additional multiplier effect for the surrounding businesses in the county.

What is clear is that all along this was about politics. That said, did they really need seven years to prove this to be true?

Christopher Hopkins is senior vice president for aggregates and mining for The Saint Consulting Group, email hopkins@tscg.biz

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