An industrial business park, a commercial truck center and what may be the largest truck stop in the United States will create an estimated 5,200 jobs on a portion of the former Kaiser steel mill in unincorporated San Bernardino County, according to project backers. County supervisors unanimously approved a specific plan for a 320-acre industrial and commercial complex, and granted a conditional use permit for a 75-acre truck stop between the cities of Fontana and Ontario. Kaiser Ventures, owned mostly by retired Kaiser steelworkers and their dependents, hopes to begin about 20 months of construction in fall of 2000, said Lee Redmond, Kaiser Ventures' vice president of real estate. "It's a good project," said Mac Coleman, San Bernardino County senior associate planner. "It takes what is left of the Kaiser mess and converts it to a productive land use." However, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is now raising endangered species issues, and infrastructure construction that would serve the project may require "incidental take" permits from federal regulators. Arranging those permits can be a slow process. As proposed, the Kaiser Commerce Center will have three components: 3.8 million square feet of manufacturing, distribution and warehouse buildings, an 80-acre commercial complex along Interstate 10 that will serve as an auto mall for truckers, and a giant truck stop, Redmond explained. The large manufacturing and distribution center makes sense because both the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad serve the site, he said. The commercial truck center has good freeway visibility. The truck stop meets an obvious demand in an area where about 43,000 trucks pass daily. "There is such a need for additional facilities for the massive number of trucks coming through this area," Redmond said. "We'll be able to handle right at about 1,300 trucks a night." The site is west and south of California Speedway, completed in 1997 on 527 acres of Kaiser's vast real estate holdings in the Fontana area. A large recycling facility and other industrial operations lie on other portions of the former Kaiser mill and manufacturing site. "It all seems to live pretty well with each other, even though it is vastly different," Redmond said. Kaiser Ventures and county officials project the commerce center, when complete, will create about 5,200 on-site jobs and nearly that many more directly related off-site jobs. The steel mill at its peak employed about 11,000 people. The project is one aspect of the Fontana area's continued recovery from the steel mill's closure during the mid-80s and of the rapid industrial expansion in the region. The San Bernardino-Riverside metropolitan area ranked third in the nation for construction of new manufacturing facilities in 1998, according to Site Selection magazine. The area's 58 new industrial buildings last year accounted for about 20 percent of the state total, and was topped only by Chicago and Detroit. Since 1995, the City of Fontana has approved 6.2 million square feet of warehouse, distribution and manufacturing space, according to Dean Libbee, a city planner. And more land remains for industrial development, he said. Why Fontana? "The land is cheap, and we're close to I-10, I-15, and the 60 freeway," Libbee said. Close proximity to Ontario International Airport, which aids that city's industrial expansion, is another factor, Libbee noted. Reuse of the Kaiser property is one of the biggest parts of the region's business growth, and the planned commerce center will provide an employment core that many cities would envy. However, the commerce center project has drawbacks. Caltrans still must approve planned freeway access projects, and environmental concerns promise to be even stickier. In approving the commerce center this spring, the county adopted statements of overriding consideration for off-site traffic congestion, and regarding air pollution during construction and after project completion. Also, Kaiser Ventures plans to use at least a portion of the millions of cubic yards of slag remaining from the steel mill for building foundations. An environmental impact report concluded there is no inherent danger in using the slag, but no one knows for sure what lies inside and underneath the 40-foot slag heaps, Coleman said. Marjorie Musser Mikels, an Upland attorney, argued that the project EIR failed to disclose significant impacts on water, traffic and air quality. She contended the county is ignoring underground pollution that taints groundwater for the sake of economic growth. "If you're going to put all these wonderful economic uses there, and these people are going to make all these millions of dollars, then they should have to clean up these places and not just cover it over," said, Mikels. (Mikels is the estranged wife of County Supervisor Jon Mikels, in whose district the Kaiser project lies.) Environmentalists and state regulators have raised concerns about PM10, which comprises a significant part of diesel exhaust. (PM10 are microscopic dust particles tiny enough to infiltrate human lungs.) A thousand trucks idling all night would only exacerbate the region's dirty air. Furthermore, biologists believe construction of a freeway interchange and work on a flood control channel may harm habitat for two federally endangered species, the Delhi sands flower-loving fly, and the San Bernardino kangaroo rat. Sands appropriate for the fly are located near the site and should be surveyed, said P.J. White, a Fish & Wildlife Service biologist. Kangaroo rats have been captured in washes near the Kaiser property, he said. The federal highway administration, which is providing partial funding for the work at I-10 and Etiwanda Avenue, is conducting a survey, White said. Federal regulators have asked the flood control district to conduct a separate survey before proceeding with work on San Seveine Creek. The creek, which runs through the Kaiser property, is already confined to a concrete channel, but the flood control district and county proposed enlarging the channel to withstand a 100-year flood. Doing so would prevent replenishment of sensitive alluvial sage scrub habitat favored by the kangaroo rat, he said. "As of right now, we don't have any concerns with Kaiser Ventures itself," White said. However, the public agencies behind the off-site projects — on which the Kaiser Commerce Center depends — may have to receive incidental take permits from USF&W because of impacts on the two endangered species. Coleman said the county's analysis disagrees with the federal concerns, which federal officials raised too late for inclusion in the commerce center EIR. Despite these concerns, few see any reason to doubt the area's continued industrial growth. The San Bernardino-Riverside area has absorbed 12 million to 16 million square feet of industrial space every year this decade. A recent economic forecast by California State University, Long Beach, predicted the San Bernardino-Riverside area would maintain job growth of at least 4% annually through 2001, the fastest in the Los Angeles region. Not surprisingly, construction employment leads the way. Contacts: Mac Coleman, San Bernardino County senior associate planner, (909) 387-4131 Lee Redmond, Kaiser Ventures vice president of real estate, (909) 483-8500. Dean Libbee, Fontana planner, (909) 350-7676. P.J. White, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist, (760) 431-9440.