The environmental review of a proposed mining reclamation plan need not consider the impacts of the actual mining, the Third District Court of Appeal has concluded.

The unanimous three-judge appellate panel rejected arguments that a negative declaration provided an inadequate study of the reclamation plan because, the court ruled, the project opponents' concerns were largely over the impacts of mining, not reclamation. Additionally, the court ruled that El Dorado County did not segment the project improperly to avoid having to provide a complete environmental analysis.

Limestone mining began at the Cool Cave Quarry in 1910 and continued intermittently until 1946. Since then, the mine, which is next to Highway 49 near the Sierra foothills community of Cool, has operated continuously. Under the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA), all mining operations conducted after 1975 must have a reclamation plan. El Dorado County approved a reclamation plan for Spreckels Limestone Products' quarry in 1980.

During the 1990s, at the same time that it became apparent the reclamation plan needed updating, Spreckels began considering expansion onto 16 acres of previously mined land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM requested a reclamation plan before it would consider leasing the land to Spreckels, so the company prepared an updated reclamation plan that covered its existing site and the 16-acre expansion area.

In December 1999, the El Dorado County Planning Commission approved a negative declaration for the reclamation plan and approved the plan. A number of citizens and organizations appealed to the Board of Supervisors, which upheld the Planning Commission's decisions. By that time, Spreckels had sold the Cool Cave Quarry to A. Teichert & Son, Inc.

The mining opponents sued, alleging a number of violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The opponents argued that the project description was inadequate, that the negative declaration did not analyze the entire project, and that the county should have recirculated the negative declaration after a substantial revision. Retired El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Patrick John Riley, sitting by assignment, ruled for the county. On appeal of the mining opponents, the Third District upheld the lower court.

The case was decided primarily on the issue of whether the environmental review documents had to account for the mining activity itself, or only for the land reclamation that would occur after mining had concluded. The project opponents contended that the two activities were part of one project and, therefore, had to be considered together in environmental documents. The Third District disagreed.

“As the trial court succinctly noted, 'the project itself was reclamation and not mining,'” Justice Rodney Davis wrote. “Although mining reclamation is not done without there having been mining, the project at issue presented the environmental effect of a reclamation plan rather than the environmental effect of mining activity. As Spreckels concedes, the proposed expansion of mining onto the 16 acres of federal land will itself be subject to the environmental review process. Furthermore, the existing mining is allowed as a vested mining right.” Davis cited City of Ukiah v. County of Mendocino, (1987) 196 Cal.App.3d 47, in which the court held that a reclamation plan subject to CEQA review was distinct from the underlying mining activity.

Pointing to Laurel Heights Improvement Assn. v. Regents of the University of California, (1988) 47 Cal.3d 376, the opponents argued that expansion of mining onto the federal land was a “reasonably foreseeable consequence” of the reclamation plan. But the Third District rejected the argument.

“Bureau [of Land Management] and county, it appears, simply believed that it would be efficient to include the proposed mining extension in the ongoing update of the reclamation plan for the current mining activity,” Davis wrote. “In this respect, the mining extension may not be a reasonably foreseeable or probable consequence of the reclamation plan update.”

The court did concede that reclamation of the existing mine relied on the use of soil from the expansion area, and that Spreckels “has stated that the plan may have to be amended” if the expansion were not allowed. That was not enough for the court to change its position, though.

The opponents also argued that the county should have recirculated the negative declaration after adding last-minute conditions requested by Caltrans to ensure that mining activity did not impact Highway 49. The court characterized these conditions - which related to mining and not reclamation - as “an added bonus” that did not trigger the need for recirculation.

The Case:
El Dorado County Taxpayers for Quality Growth v. County of El Dorado, No. C044541, 04 C.D.O.S. 9209. Filed September 14, 2004. Modified and ordered published October 14, 2004.
The Lawyers:
For Taxpayers for Quality Growth: Donald Mooney, (530) 758-2377.
For the county: Ed Knapp, county counsel, (530) 621-5770.
For Cool Cave Quarry, Inc.: John M. Taylor, Taylor & Wiley, (916) 929-5545.