Even though the recession has brought construction in the Central Valley nearly to a standstill, one of the world's largest suppliers of building materials appears bullish on the region. Cemex Construction Materials, LP, has proposed an aggregate mine on a 2,036-acre site in Fresno County, inciting protest from both environmentalists and local Native American tribes.
The site of the proposed Jesse Morrow Mountain Mine and Reclamation Plan Project, 20 miles to the east of the city of Fresno and 15 miles west of Kings Canyon National Park, embodies many of the resource and land use planning challenges facing much of the state.
The process leading up to the final EIR has divided the Choinumni Tribe, a local Indian tribe whose ancestral lands are anchored by Jesse Morrow Mountain (Wahillish to the Choinumni). Local settlers massacred members of the Choinumni Tribe to the south of the mountain in 1852, and the final swath of land still owned by the 500-member tribe—the Choinumni Sacred Burial Grounds—lies on a two-acre plot to the north.
Early in the planning process, Cemex reached an agreement with John Davis, leader of the Kings River Choinumni Farm Tribe, by swapping a 40-acre parcel on the north side of the mountain in exchange for cooperation with the mining project.
Cemex considers the 40-acre parcel to be of greater cultural significance than the land on the southern end of the mountain, where Cemex would develop the project. Since that initial agreement was struck, a 150-member portion of the tribe—called the Traditional Choinumni Tribe—has opposed the project and the agreement.
According to Dave Singleton, program analyst for the state's Native American Heritage Commission, representatives from the Traditional Choinumni Tribe "didn't feel that the principles on behalf of Cemex respected their spiritual beliefs about the mountain—they feel strongly." Singleton added that Cemex has not improved efforts to consider all of the cultural consequences during the final EIR process in response to his agency's comments on the draft EIR.
According to Singleton, Cemex also has not engaged with other tribes in the area.
"Our concern is for all the culturally affiliated tribes that have an interest and have ancestral ties to that project and neighboring projects—it is a cultural landscape, not just Jesse Morrow Mountain," said Singleton.
He listed other cultural sites nearby, including the Wahtoke Village to the east of the mountain. In addition to the mountain's value to the Choinumni, the area is significant to the Western Mono tribe in the Sanger area and the Table Mountain Rancheria tribe in Friant.
Further complicating the consensus-building process are disputes about the economic benefits and the environmental impacts of the project. Cemex claims that it will minimize the impacts of the project while providing critical supplies to the building industry in the region.
The draft EIR, released for public comment in December 2009, describes an aggregate mining, processing, and distribution facility on land designated for rangeland and irrigated agriculture. Cemex owns approximately 2,036 acres of undeveloped land at the site, of which approximately 824 acres will be developed for the project. The 824 acres includes 400 acres for mining and 40 acres for recycling, ready-mix, and asphalt facilities. The remaining 384 acres would act as a buffer between the mining and processing areas and surrounding land uses. Cemex maintains that the mine would be consistent with the land use designated for the area in the county General Plan.
The Friends of Jesse Morrow Mountain—a local group that opposes the project to protect the cultural, historical, biological, water and visual significance of the mountain—contends that there will be significant and unavoidable impacts to aesthetics, air quality, cultural heritage, and vehicle traffic, as identified in the project's draft EIR.
Cemex claims, however, that regardless of how much emissions the plant produces, it will ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions because of its proximity to producers of cement and other building materials. The draft EIR for the project included greenhouse gas analysis that was the first of its kind in Fresno County.
According to Jennifer Borgen, spokesperson for Cemex, "Jesse Morrow Mountain's shorter distance to project sites immediately confers upon the county an ability to show reduced greenhouse gas emissions in compliance with new state laws ahead of dates extending to 2023, at no additional cost to city or county governments," adding that the project will save nearly 1,300,000 gallons of fuel annually compared to transporting aggregates from longer distances.
The mitigation of greenhouse emissions resulting from the project relative to other options is hard to evaluate, especially in light of a dearth of strategic policies for resource planning at the state or regional level. The most recent geological survey taken by the state pre-dates the downturn in the building industry and recent technological advancements in the production and sourcing of building materials.
The California Geological Survey (CGS) projects supply and demand for resources by region in the state. The most recent CGS study from 2007 found that Fresno County has a projected demand of 629 million tons of aggregate resources over the next 50 years, with 71 million tons permitted at the time of the study's release.
Since the release of that study, two new aggregate resource facilities have been permitted in Fresno County, and the collapse of the real estate market has slowed housing starts. Many project opponents wonder if the data employed by the state are simply obsolete.
The website for the Friends of Jesse Morrow Mountain includes independent analysis of the county's need for aggregate materials. The study, prepared by Richard Young, a retired NASA researcher residing in Dunlap, cites bad or obsolete projection methodology in the draft EIR and the CGS study.
Mike Prandini, executive officer of the Fresno/Madera Chapter of the Building Industry Association, acknowledges that there is no current shortage of aggregates because of the ongoing building slump in the region. Nevertheless, the BIA supports the mine because builders expect that the return of the housing industry and the construction of the California High Speed Rail project will soon require large amounts of aggregates, especially concrete.
"Builders are always concerned about aggregates," said Prandini. "Three of four years ago, there was real problem getting concrete. Prices hit $100 a yard—normally it is $50-60 a yard."
Cemex and its predecessors have provided aggregates to the Fresno region since 1924 from the Rockfield Plant near Friant. With that mine reaching the end of its supply, Cemex intends the Jesse Morrow Mountain project to continue the company's production capacity in the region. Cemex decided on this site as the option with the least amount of environmental impact after also considering a 3,000-acre site closer to the Kings River.
The Fresno County Planning Commission is expected to hear the final EIR for the project in March of 2011. With the controversial nature of the project in mind, the Planning Commission has announced that the public hearing period for the final EIR will last 30 days, instead of the legally required ten days. The county will conduct the CEQA review, with the possibility that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the U.S. EPA intervene if the project does not satisfy the permitting criteria of industry regulations.
Contacts & Resources
Draft EIR (pdf):
Briza Sholars, Planner III,?Fresno County Public Works and Planning Department: (559) 262-4454
Jennifer H. Borgen, Director of Communications, External; Cemex, (713) 722-1799
Michael Prandini, Chief Executive, Building Industry Association – Fresno/Madera Chapter: (559) 600-4207
Dave Singleton, Program Analyst, Native American Heritage Commission, (916) 653-6251