Owners Seek to Expand Illegally Run O.C. Mine

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A rock quarry cited repeatedly for code violations has operated here without required permits for two years, and now its owners want to triple the size of the mine, which could tear up scores of acres earmarked as future parkland.

County inspection records show that since 1990, Ortega Rock Quarry Inc. has run an illegal sand and gravel pit that has intruded into county wilderness, contaminated a stream and lined Lucas Canyon with piles of debris.

All told, the documents show that local authorities have notified Ortega Rock of at least 10 possible violations of county health, water and fire codes. Most of those problems, if not all of them, have been corrected, county officials say.

But apart from that, inspection records show that the company continues to crush rock without a permit, operate a road it built through Ronald W. Caspers Regional Park without approval and mine about 40 acres with an original permit issued for a 15-acre enterprise.

"This is the most flagrant violator I've ever seen," said Floyd G. McLellan Jr., manager of a division within the county's Environmental Management Agency, which is responsible for overseeing building and grading inspections.

John R. Schmutz, general manager of Ortega Rock, declined to discuss the quarry's operation, except to say that the county has not taken any serious action against the company.

"Well, they haven't shut us down," Schmutz said. "The county people were supposed to have an inspector assigned to us for the past four years, and they've had nobody out here."

Despite its problems, Ortega Rock has applied to the county to increase its operation from about 40 acres to 126 acres in anticipation of becoming a supplier of rock and gravel for the county's proposed tollways. The Board of Supervisors must decide whether to approve the request.

Environmentalists say they will oppose the expansion because it would violate the intent of an agreement between the county and the Santa Margarita Co. to eventually make the quarry part of Caspers Regional Park.

The gravel pit sits on leased Rancho Mission Viejo land, about 2 miles up picturesque Lucas Canyon, which is near Cleveland National Forest and Caspers Regional Park.

While the property sits within 348 acres zoned for mining, it is part of a 2,225-acre parcel promised to the county as parkland in 1983 by the Santa Margarita Co., a large South County landholder that owns Rancho Mission Viejo. The agreement allowed the company to develop Rancho Santa Margarita.

The entire amount of dedicated acreage, however, will not officially become part of Caspers Regional Park until the mining operation is shut down.

Today's gravel pit is a far cry from the quarry that began operating in December, 1962, when Silberberger Constructors Inc. of Carlsbad obtained a conditional use permit for 10 years to excavate large rocks from 15 acres of Lucas Canyon. According to county records, the boulders were used for breakwaters in Dana Point Harbor.

Ortega Rock is the third owner of the quarry. James A. Miller, a civil engineer and chief of the county's grading unit, which regulates mining, said that in the past few years, the firm has increased operations substantially without getting new permits or doing environmental impact reports.

"I'm very concerned. This is a long list of very serious violations," said Robert G. Fisher, director of the county's division of harbors, beaches and parks. "We intend to make sure they are corrected."

County records show that the company--without required approvals--cut a 15-foot-wide swath of roadway through Caspers Regional Park to provide access to the mine for as many as 50 trucks a day. In addition, inspectors maintain that Ortega Rock has stored an array of old boats, trucks and leaky machinery in fragile county wilderness.

That machinery and several 55-gallon drums of used oil and grease were the cause of many of the environmental problems, said Lane Waldner, who oversees the assessment of environmental problems for the Environmental Management Agency. Under county orders, the soil contaminated by the oil and grease was excavated, as was the soil around a contaminated pond of ground water used to fill water trucks, Waldner said.

Miller described as "baloney" Schmutz's assertion that the county has not inspected the quarry for four years. He said his office not only has been conducting ongoing inspections of the operation but has requested that Ortega Rock update the county about its activities.

While regulators suspected that something was amiss two years ago, records show that the code violations were not confirmed until last winter, when Ortega Rock asked the county to expand the quarry operation.

"We had our suspicions," Miller said. "We didn't believe they had stayed within their limits, so we asked them to update their topographical map. They dinked around for a considerable time before they finally got with the program and showed us what they had done. A lot of it is totally illegal."

County officials say the reason the operation has not been closed down is because sand and gravel operations are often treated as untouchable by county executives. "The prevailing attitude is that the sand and gravel industry is a critical part of our economy," Miller said. "Unfortunately, these operators know that too."

John Sibley, chief deputy director of the county's Environmental Management Agency, said he does not "treat anyone any differently, whether it is a homeowner or a major developer." For now, he said, he is giving Ortega Rock "the benefit of the doubt" but is planning to visit the site himself.

"I haven't seen all the documentation . . . but if the complaints are true, it is probably going to be more difficult for them to get a new permit," Sibley said.

Although the county cannot turn the quarry into parkland until the mining operation is terminated, local environmentalists claim that Ortega Rock's violations and expansion plans have drifted from the spirit of the original agreement with the Santa Margarita Co.

"This is not what was envisioned. This is underhanded," said Pete DeSimone of the National Audubon Society. "The implication of the original agreement was to complete a small mining operation, like 10 to 15 acres, and then shut down to become parkland. There was never any talk of a monumental operation like this."

The Audubon Society oversees a wilderness preserve called Starr Ranch next to Caspers Regional Park. DeSimone added that Ortega Rock has the right to mine on the current property but that the county "has a right to refuse it too."

If the expansion is approved, the company will spread its operation over 126 acres for 35 to 75 years and carve a 700-foot swath of land on the side of Lucas Canyon up to an elevation of 1,500 feet.

County officials have derisively labeled the plan "Mt. Rushmore" and claim the scar in the wilderness could be seen as far away as Santa Catalina Island. "It's enormous," Miller said. "I've never seen an operation even one-quarter of that size anywhere. It's a preposterous idea."

Maribeth Gustafson, a district ranger in neighboring Cleveland National Forest, also lambasted the mining operation. In a letter sent to the Board of Supervisors, Gustafson stated that the expanded quarry would come within 50 feet of the forest border and magnify erosion, noise and sedimentation in the fragile area.

So far, Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, who represents the supervisorial district in which the quarry is located, has withheld judgment on the mining operation. He said through his aide, Ken Bruner, that an upcoming environmental impact report on the expansion application should "bring all the complicated matters to light."

Diane Gaynor, a spokeswoman for the Santa Margarita Co., issued a statement that refers all queries to Ortega Rock, a privately held company owned by Leroy Hansberger of Redlands. Hansberger did not return repeated phone calls from The Times.

"It is our understanding," Gaynor said, "that Ortega Rock has made all the appropriate applications and is now processing all the necessary plans through the county of Orange to address both its current and future mining efforts."

Meanwhile, Ortega Rock continues to shuffle trucks in and out of the canyon without county approvals for increased truck traffic on dangerous Ortega Highway, according to county officials and inspection records.

"All kinds of things pop up when you start modifying the use of a property," Miller said. "There is a much greater demand for crushed rock. That is what causes us a greater concern. You would be identifying an enormous number of trips per day on a street that is already controversial because of the traffic load and serious accidents."

County officials and environmentalists might be concerned, but future contractors and prospective buyers with an eye on the growth of South County are interested in the operation. Miller said that among the companies which have contacted him about Ortega Rock is Granite Construction Co., which has the contract to build the San Joaquin Hills tollway. The highway will run near the quarry.

Ortega Rock "wants to market the lease," Miller said. "Apparently, they have put the word out in the industry. My perception is that they are trying to set themselves up with additional entitlements . . . that would give them a much more marketable operation."

A lease for sand and gravel in the current market would be worth a sizable sum, Miller said.

Ortega Rock Quarry Citations

Since 1990, Orange County inspectors have notified Ortega Rock Quarry Inc. of these 10 possible violations of county fire, health and water codes, most of which have been recently corrected:

1. Grading work beyond the 1976 approved limits.

2. Slough material distributed without permits or engineering.

3. Siltation basins installed with no permits and in violation of state Fish and Game Code, and not included in the 1976 approval action.

4. Pumps and tanks installed with no permits and violating current water quality regulations.

5. Contaminated soil.

6. Fuel drums (full and empty) stored on site with no permits or inspection.

7. Pump installed in Lucas Creek with no permits or compliance with state Fish and Game Code.

8. Desilting basin never permitted by the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board.

9. No evidence that the applicant has water rights to use or impound Lucas Creek runoff or ground water.

10. No evidence that sufficient topsoil has been saved and stored to place over all the cut slopes and make proposed reclamation landscaping feasible.

Source: Orange County Environmental Management Agency

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