Balancing economic development with environmental protection can be hard under the best circumstances, but it’s especially tricky in a mostly rural county like Kern, where money for public services remains tight, many jobs revolve around resource extraction and political convictions related to private property rights run deep.
All of this made for robust debate Tuesday afternoon during a public hearing the Board of Supervisors convened to consider a small mining operation proposed in eastern Kern by one of the area’s more significant employers: cement-maker CalPortland.
Under pressure from state government to shrink its carbon footprint, the Glendora-based company asked for the county’s permission to mine a half-million tons per year of volcanic tuff for the purpose of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide emitted during its cement manufacturing process.
The county Planning Commission had already voted unanimously Nov. 10 to approve CalPortland’s application for a conditional use permit. After neighbors of the proposed open-pit mine appealed the decision for reasons ranging from air quality to light and noise pollution, it was left to the board to determine whose side would prevail.
In the end, the board added an operating restriction, agreeable to the company, beyond a list of 41 mitigation measures county staff had recommended to cushion the mining project’s impact on nearby residents, wildlife and the natural environment about four miles northwest of Rosamond.
The board’s reputation for business friendliness may have made it somewhat unsurprising that the board ultimately voted 5-0 reject the appeal, certify the project’s environmental assessment and approve a statement of overriding considerations despite staff’s conclusions that the project would come with significant, unavoidable drawbacks and cumulative impacts to the area’s aesthetics and biological resources.
The area’s representative on the board, District 2 Supervisor Zack Scrivner, said he was impressed by project opponents’ research and sympathetic to their concerns. Even so, he declared CalPortland to be a good community partner with a right to make reasonable use of its own property.
“When we have issues like this, it’s always difficult,” he said, “because we have to strike a balance between those competing interests.”
CalPortland’s proposal was to mine tuff for a period of about 30 years on 82 acres inside an 210-acre expanse it owns west of Mojave Tropico Road, 21 miles south of Backus Road. The idea is to transport the material to the company’s 58-year-old, nearly 200-employee cement plant in Mojave, where the material would be substituted for clinker to help it meet California’s climate goals, in the process creating 20 new jobs.
Nine residents made the 70-minute trip from the Rosamond area to downtown Bakersfield to tell the board their thoughts about CalPortland’s plan for what’s been dubbed the Gem Hill Quarry. Only one of them spoke in favor of the proposal.
The opposition was led by project neighbors Erin Hambrick and Phillip Moores. They denounced the company’s plan as a destructive “greenwashed project” with questionable climate benefits and serious repercussions for an area Moores described as a seasonal meadow with chirping birds and, depending on the time of year, streams and the sweet smell of perfume from wildflowers.
“This project, as described, has already and will continue to destroy the fragile desert environment surrounding Gem Hills, its residents and the adjacent communities of Rosamond and Mojave,” she said.
Other residents of the area backed Hambrick’s and Moores’ objections that CalPortland’s proposal has the potential to degrade local roads, kick up valley fever spores, lower residential property values, disrupt the area’s relative silence with almost-daily explosions, ruin daytime and nighttime views and deplete local water wells.
Aerospace engineer Michael Tribuno challenged county staff’s assertions that neighbors will hardly be able to see or hear the mining operation. Residents should be meaningfully compensated for expected declines in their property values as a result of the project, Tribuno said. He added that more of his neighbors would have shown up to oppose the proposal if they had been aware of it.
When the public-comment portion of the hearing concluded, Scrivner asked county staff to address concerns raised by the area’s residents.
Director Lorelei Oviatt of the Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Department responded that the county does not believe the groundwater CalPortland intends to use for dust suppression will drain nearby residential wells. But she said that if it does, there are legal remedies they can pursue to hold the company accountable.
She acknowledged the California Department of Fish and Wildlife came to a different conclusion than the county’s own assessment the project would cause undue harm to vulnerable species in the area. She noted biological experts often come to different conclusions about commercial projects’ impacts on wildlife. She pointed out the area has been designated for mineral extraction since 1986.
Addressing concerns the mining operation could cause disruption during sleeping hours, Oviatt said the board was free to impose time limitations on the company.
At that point, a CalPortland representative told the board the plan was to operate the mine only between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., and that the company was open to writing that into the operating permit, along with a restriction that work be done at the site Monday through Saturday but not on Sunday.
After those limitations were added to the proposed permit, Scrivner said part of the reason he supported the project was that CalPortland’s Mojave plant pays $2.8 million per year in taxes that support public services in the county.
Scrivner said he did not support the way the state is essentially forcing CalPortland to reduce its carbon footprint. “But nevertheless,” he said, “we do have to adapt and we have to respond, and that’s what I believe this company is doing.”
As for complaints the project will forever change neighbors’ views and the area’s topography, Scrivner responded that it’s private property, after all.
“The view that folks enjoy is on top of someone else’s property,” he said.
With that, the board voted unanimously to approve project.