A large sand and gravel mine located in the Cuyama River first proposed a decade ago finally has full clearance to proceed, after a state appellate court rejected the remaining lawsuit related to environmental concerns earlier this year.
First proposed by Troesh Materials in 2002, the Diamond Rock Mine — which would last for at least 30 years, remove as much as 500,000 tons of rock per year, and eventually cover 84 acres of the Cuyama River bed — endured six years of permit processing by the County of Santa Barbara, Army Corps of Engineers, state Department of Fish & Game, and state Office of Mining Reclamation. Those approvals were followed by another four years of legal challenges, coming both from the Ojai Valley, where residents near Highway 33 were able to scale back the expected trucking traffic from the mine, and from the sparsely populated, intensely agricultural Cuyama Valley. Residents and farmers there were behind this last lawsuit, which was originally filed four years ago by San Luis Obispo-based environmental law attorney Babak Naficy for a group calling itself Save Cuyama Valley.
Though disappointed by the decision, Gene Zannon, who owns Santa Barbara Pistachio Company and is one of the folks behind the lawsuit, was not surprised. “It was pretty much a done deal from the get-go,” explained Zannon, who said that his family only found out about the project a couple weeks before the county’s public comment period. But this lawsuit wasn’t the only tactic used by Zannon and other concerned Cuyamans, as they also pushed on the Army Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency for “substantial changes” that were made related to monitoring impacts now and later. “In effect, we accomplished a lot relative to the size and hopefully the impact,” said Zannon.
Zannon is also pleased that the project triggered the creation of the Cuyama Valley Conservancy, which now works to protect quality of life and agriculture in the region. “People have become engaged and that’s a first for this community as far as I can remember,” said Zannon, who bought land there in the 1980s and started planting his pistachios in the 1990s. “I don’t think the Board of Supervisors is going to allow something like that again.”
But his fears about how the Diamond Rock Mine might harm to the quantity and quality of water in the Cuyama Valley remain. “Notwithstanding, we still think we’re right,” said Zannon, “and time will tell.” Interestingly, on one specific part of the case, the judges actually agreed that the county had misinterpreted possible impacts to water quality as “not significant,” but ruled that the incorrect conclusion was overcome by mandatory mitigation measures designed to stop any damage before it occurred.
Despite the decision, it may be awhile before the Diamond Rock Mine starts ramping up, according to Cherisse Troesh-Sweeney. Her family owns Troesh Materials, but sold off it’s concrete ready mix operation a few years ago and now has less of a pressing need for the rocks. “It’s all market-driven,” she explained. “Our immediate need has changed significantly.” That said, there is still a “shortage” of those materials in the marketplace, so low-level activity has been happening at the site for some time now, as the lawsuit did not preclude work from starting. “Things keep plugging away,” said Troesh-Sweeney. “We do still need that aggregate.”
Though focused on Diamond Rock, the decision — which was filed in January and published in early February — also clarified certain aspects of the California Environmental Quality Act, according to Troesh Materials’ attorney Scott Castro, particularly how much control local agencies have over assessing a project’s impacts based on the regional conditions as well as when agencies can defer the final mitigation measures until more information about the actual impacts — and how to best address them — is known. The panel of judges’ decision was especially noteworthy, said Castro, because it upheld a decision to allow mining in a riverbed, where complicated, weather-dependent water flows make gathering evidence of a project’s real impacts — and strategies on how to combat them properly — more of a longer term challenge.
For more of an explanation on that front, read Castro’s article here.
Read the decision in full here.