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Mining Plan Threat to Oxnard Water Supply, Critics Say

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A proposal to dig deep pits for mining gravel could expose Oxnard’s underground water supplies to contaminants, endangering the health of residents, critics argued Wednesday.

CalMat Co., which wants Ventura County to amend its planning rules to allow the deep-pit mining, says the proposal poses no more contamination risk to ground-water supplies than the shallower pits now at the Saticoy site.

Yet the city of Oxnard, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board and nearly a dozen other agencies and organizations have voiced opposition to the proposed project, saying it could remove too much soil, eliminating nature’s filter, and thus harm water quality and reduce ground-water supplies.

“I have never seen a project in the county that is so threatening to our local water quality,” said Carla Bard, former chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, which monitors water rights and quality. “It is like allowing a great big open sore. You could consider the water system looking like your arterial or venal system, and what you are doing is opening up a wound and exposing it.”

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The 500-acre proposed mining area--near the intersection of Los Angeles and Vineyard avenues in Saticoy--includes spots where water from the Santa Clara River and sewage treatment plants collects and seeps through the earth into aquifers.

If CalMat were allowed to excavate a pit as deep as 100 feet, project critics say, a vital natural filtration process would be eliminated, allowing viruses, parasites and other contaminants to enter the ground water.

Glen Reiser, a private environmental attorney representing the Calleguas Municipal Water District, said the proposed project could have dire consequences for Oxnard, which draws water from the system.

“Assuming this aquifer becomes contaminated, which it could very well become if viruses and cysts enter the system, then local water supply is out the window,” Reiser said. Water-borne diseases, such as giardia or cryptosporidium, can prove fatal to the elderly or infirm, he said.

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But Marc Charney, a private Oxnard attorney representing CalMat, dismissed the charge that the project could lead to water contamination.

He said a revised draft environmental report on the project prepared by the Ventura County Planning Department in April concludes that deepening the pits does not increase the risk of contamination already posed by existing pits, which are now no deeper than 25 feet.

“There is absolutely nothing that says that this is any greater a threat with the project than without,” Charney said.

Charney added that aquifers have their own built-in filtration system--the soil and rocks that the water passes through.

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Project critics have said the environmental report does not adequately address the issue of contamination and have asked the county to prepare yet another revision.

The opponents want the company to dig for aggregate--sand and gravel--elsewhere and scrub the project in Saticoy, where CalMat has already been mining the land and owns a processing plant.

But Charney said the area contains the best supply of sand and gravel, and that trucking the aggregate from other locations could do more damage to the environment. He added that the county could lose a steady supply of sand and gravel, along with as many as 65 jobs.

“That’s not counting jobs indirectly related to the project,” Charney said.

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The county’s Environmental Report Review Committee held a public hearing on the environmental report at the County Government Center on Wednesday. If the committee gives its blessing to the report after June 26, the project could go before the county Planning Commission in July, said Scott Ellison, a county planning official.

If the process remained on schedule, Ellison said the Board of Supervisors could consider the deep-pit mining proposal in August. The proposal calls for extending the life of the gravel pits 50 years to the year 2045.

Ellison said the preferred project alternative would ban mining in two of the three pits. It would allow mining in the third pit--called the Ferro pit--down to 80 instead of 100 feet.

But the alternative would still require the county to amend its General Plan, since it now does not allow mining below the ground-water table. Critics fear that this could set a bad precedent.

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“There are many other firms that would like to see deep-pit mining below the water table,” Bard said. “There is no question that other people would come and ask for the same thing.”

CalMat has pledged to take a number of measures to mitigate any potential effects of the deeper mining, including storing water in unused pits.

If the preferred alternative, which calls for digging only one deep pit, is approved by the county, the environmental report said the amount of ground water would actually increase because the two other pits could be used for water storage.

“We believe that the [environmental report] should be certified as it is,” Charney told the committee Wednesday.

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