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Gravel Producer Drops Plans for Mining River : Environment: Granite Construction decides that regulations would make it too costly to extract rocks and sand from the Santa Clara.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Granite Construction Co., one of Ventura County’s largest river rock and sand mining outfits, has withdrawn its applications to extract tons of material from the Santa Clara River, saying overwhelming environmental regulations have made the project too costly.

Officials for the Watsonville-based company notified the county of its decision just two weeks after closing an asphalt mixing plant near Santa Paula, citing a shortage of locally produced sand and gravel.

The withdrawal left a second mining company, Sespe Rock Co., with the choice of paying to complete an environmental study that the two companies had begun together, or dropping its own plans. Both companies were seeking to expand their current operations and excavate new areas.

The environmental study, which has cost $400,000 so far, reviews the effects of sand and gravel mining on a seven-mile stretch of the Santa Clara River between Fillmore and Santa Paula. Officials could not say how much more the report would cost to complete.

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On Monday, a Sespe Rock official said the company was prepared to proceed with its own proposals upstream from the Granite project despite the absence of Granite Construction.

“It looks like, as of today, we will scale back our project to just our own property,” said Chris Nickel, a partner in Sespe Rock.

Danny Devereaux, a Granite Construction manager, said the company’s withdrawal was prompted by the increased costs needed to satisfy environmental concerns, combined with the reduction in recoverable material recommended by the draft environmental report.

“We looked at the project and decided it was uneconomical to pursue,” Devereaux said.

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Granite Construction in 1988 had proposed removing 505,000 tons of sand and gravel each year from 1,740 acres of river bed east of Santa Paula, with an estimated reserve of 6 million tons.

In its review of the project’s environmental impacts, however, the Ventura firm of Fugro-McClelland West proposed reducing the depth and width of the project to protect the river’s wetlands and endangered species like the least Bell’s vireo.

Devereaux said the restrictions would have reduced the reserves to a maximum of 1.5 million tons--not enough to justify the project’s cost.

In April, the county’s Environmental Review Committee called the draft study inadequate and instructed the two companies to return with modified proposals before the study could be completed.

But Devereaux said the company was reluctant to agree to a new contract for additional study because of what it perceived as regulatory delays that had dragged on since 1988.

“We were afraid to go on again with a new contract in light of the county’s practice of delaying approval one year at a time,” he said. “There was no end to what kept getting added on to this project.”

Judith Ward, an associate planner for Ventura County, said the company was caught in the middle of changing state and federal regulations over gravel mining and increased concern over the future of the Santa Clara River valley.

“Everybody’s rules have grown more stringent in the last five years,” Ward said. “There is a big push by (the state Department of) Fish and Game, (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife and the Corps of Engineers to leave the river in a natural state.”

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Tom Berg, director of Ventura County’s Resource Management Agency and a member of the Santa Clara River Management Steering Committee, described the committee’s efforts as a balancing act between the need to utilize resources and the desire to preserve the river.

“The gravel folks are just one of the many players in deciding how to manage the resources of the Santa Clara River,” Berg said.

Devereaux said the increasing regulation of mining by various agencies has crippled the sand and gravel industry, which he said has resulted in a shortage of sand and gravel needed to make concrete and asphalt.

“It looks like there are too many hits coming from too many agencies,” he said.

Granite Construction closed its asphalt mixing plant outside Santa Paula on Aug. 1 after S.P. Milling--it major supplier--said it was unable to meet its needs, Devereaux said. Equipment from the plant--which employed six and produced 150,000 tons of asphalt a year, will be moved to another site outside the county, he said.

Nickel, of Sespe Rock, expressed regret that Granite Construction has withdrawn from the project.

“We’ve been attacked over concerns for the wetlands and the environment,” Nickel said. “But our products and our employees are an endangered species as well.”


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