Imagine taking a 5-acre piece of hillside in a watershed surrounding Humboldt Bay, removing all of the trees and topsoil down to bare dirt and rock, exposing it to year after year of winter rains, and then expecting downstream neighbors and Humboldt County residents to believe “it’ll be fine.”
That’s what the county supervisors and the Schneider quarry operators are asking us to do.
The Schneider quarry is adjacent to Rocky Creek, which flows into Humboldt Bay just south of Bayside Cutoff. For years the quarry had an operations plan, a reclamation plan, and a viable business enterprise.
However, the reclamation plan expired in 2003, requiring the quarry owners to begin reclamation to restore the exposed rock faces.
Instead, quarry operators chose to do nothing, for 8 years.
In 2011, the county notified the quarry owner to take action: either close the mine and conduct the required reclamation, or renew the reclamation plan. The owner chose to do the latter because it required no action at the quarry, just paperwork.
The county is the lead agency for several state laws, and is required to ensure that the mining operator follows those laws. In this case, SMARA (the state mining law), CEQA (the state environmental protection law), and the federal Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act all apply.
The quarry owner is required to protect water quality and fish habitat in nearby Rocky Creek. The county must also ensure that all required permits are in place to comply with state and federal statutes.
The county has failed on both counts. Quarry operators submitted their reclamation plan to the Planning Commissioners last January without appropriate protection for Rocky Creek in violation of SMARA, CEQA, and the federal Clean Water Act. Despite the fact that the proposed plan was both incomplete and did not comply with state and federal laws, the Planning Commission approved it.
Alarmed by the county’s cavalier attitude toward enforcing the law at the quarry, Humboldt Baykeeper and California Trout appealed the Planning Commission’s approval of the faulty reclamation plan.
Our appeal issues are twofold: protecting nearby nesting bald eagles, and protecting the $1 million in taxpayer funds spent to restore coho salmon and steelhead habitat in Rocky Creek. This multi-year restoration effort paid for a fish-friendly tidegate, removed fish passage barriers, upgraded culverts and bridges to prevent erosion, and improved fish habitat. Public funds were also used to restore a former mill site. All of these improvements are at risk if the approved reclamation plan is allowed to stand as currently written.
The quarry operator has consistently refused to obtain the required water quality permit, has refused to enlarge the sediment basins to prevent polluted runoff from reaching the creek, and now is adamantly refusing to waive the county’s liability as is standard procedure in appeal cases. Incredibly, the quarry owners claim they need access to up to 7,000 cubic yards of quarry rock annually for “personal use” and not for sale. Surprisingly, the county is willing to accept this dubious claim, despite photo evidence we’ve recently provided them that the quarry is being mined for commercial sales. The county’s planning staff and counsel agreed with several of our appeal issues, and recommended changes to the project. We were encouraged by these improvements when our appeal was initially reviewed by county supervisors at a Dec. 10 hearing.
Unfortunately, a majority of supervisors seemed to favor rejecting these improvements recommended by staff.
Today, the Board of Supervisors will resume the appeal hearing, and may vote to approve this unlawful project. Doing so would undermine state laws and protection of Humboldt County’s irreplaceable natural resources. It would also signal a step backward in the significant efforts that have gone into improving habitat for imperiled salmon and steelhead habitat in a region that once enjoyed robust salmon and steelhead populations. Perhaps of greatest concern, the board would set a dangerous precedent if it allows this faulty plan to move forward. Humboldt County residents deserve and respect a county government that upholds the law and protects our natural resources. We are counting on our supervisors to do just that.
Darren Mierau is North Coast area manager for California Trout, a San Francisco-based 501(c)(3) conservation group.