A recent decision by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors left environmental groups fuming and a local landowner feeling he's been singled out amid a flurry of allegations of hypocrisy, dishonesty and good old boy politics.
Playing out over two meetings spread across two months, the board ultimately voted 4-1, with 3rd District Supervisor Mark Lovelace dissenting, to deny an appeal of the planning commission's approval of a reclamation plan for the Halvorsen Quarry, a small mining operation in Bayside nestled along Rocky Creek.
The quarry — one of more than 100 in Humboldt County — has been in operation for some 70 years, with the roughly 5-acre site holding a vested right to annually extract as much as 10,000 cubic yards of aggregate material. Owned by Ryan Schneider, the quarry has gone through varying stages of use but is currently sitting in an "idle" state, meaning its limited to producing 10 percent of the rock it once did and that the mined materials can only be for personal use, and cannot be sold.
Under California's Surface Mining and Reclamation Act, all mines in the state must operate with a reclamation plan in place that essentially dictates what steps are needed to protect the environment and surrounding watersheds if the mine were to close. Schneider submitted a plan for approval with the county planning commission that would cover the quarry into 2025, and the planning commission offered its stamp of approval in the form of a 6-1 vote last year.
But the issue was not without its controversy. A group of neighbors of the quarry — led by Darren Mierau, the north coast manager for the nonprofit CalTrout, which works to protect fish and their waters — urged the planning commission to impose additional restrictions on the quarry, including water quality testing and a storm water runoff prevention plan, as a part of its approval. The neighbors pointed to more than $1 million in federal and state funds recently spent to restore salmon runs in Rocky Creek, and to the fact that the bald eagle webcam — which captured the hearts and minds of folks across the county — is located within a half mile of the site. This is an important and sensitive watershed, they argued, and one that warrants some protection.
Mierau, a fisheries biologist by trade who moved near the quarry in 2000 after purchasing a property from Schneider, said he'd been feeling for years that mining operations at the quarry were "poorly done" and resulting in the silting of Rocky Creek. "I've been looking for an opportunity to try to step in and force the operator to conduct business in a better way," he said.
When the planning commission didn't see it the neighbors' way and voted to approve the reclamation plan, Mierau said they were going to drop the issue, not willing to pay the $2,500 fee to appeal the commission's decision to the board. But, then, Humboldt Baykeeper stepped in, agreeing to pay the bulk of the bill. Mierau and Baykeeper Policy Director Jennifer Kalt both said county staff proved very receptive to the concerns raised in their appeal.
Ultimately, county staff recommended that the board adopt a couple of provisions raised in the appeal into its approval of a reclamation plan for Halvorsen quarry by requiring some additional water quality testing and a storm water runoff prevention plan. The board, however, proved much less receptive and voted to overturn the appeal in its entirety, against staff's recommendation, essentially finding that the additional requirements are unnecessary given the quarry's current "idle" state, and that the oversight they would provide would be under the purview of other agencies if the quarry ever kicks back up to commercial operations.
But the last point became a matter of much contention, after Baykeeper and Mierau provided evidence they feel shows Schneider is currently selling rock from the quarry, offering the county pictures of a truck hauling rock from the property. Kalt told the board that she spoke with the truck driver, who said Alves Roofing had purchased the rock from the quarry because it had depleted its reserve supply and needed some more material on hand. Additionally, they provided the board with advertisements from two October editions of the Builder's Exchange newsletter offering rock for sale from the Halvorsen Quarry.
But Schneider countered that he isn't selling any rock, and that the issue has nothing to do with the approval of a reclamation plan anyway. "This is ridiculous," he wrote in a letter to the county. "Alves is crushing the rock for me to use on my own projects." Allegations that Mierau illegally subdivided his property and filled wetlands in order to sell it off flew from the Schneider camp too. Mierau flatly denies the allegations, noting that the deed for his property — purchased from Schneider — contains no disclosures of environmentally sensitive wetlands.
The board seemed unmoved by any questions concerning whether the quarry is currently operating at a commercial level. If it does begin commercial operations, it would be Schneider's responsibility to notify the state Regional Water Quality Control Board and get the required permits. As the board prepared to deny the appeal, Deputy County Counsel Davina Smith suggested at the proverbial 11th hour that it might be wise to include an indemnification agreement as a condition of the plan, essentially making Schneider responsible for any fees the county incurs in the future defending its decision against litigation.
After much discussion over two meetings, the board included the hold-harmless agreement as a condition of approval. However, it remains unclear if Schneider will sign it. Dave Schneider, Ryan's father who has represented him before the board, told the board he had no intention of signing such an agreement, and argued that his quarry was being singled out by the request, noting that none of the other hundred or so reclamation plans in place in the county were conditioned on such an agreement.
"We pay these folks to make a decision," Dave Schneider said, referring to the board. "We want them to make a decision and we want them to stand behind it."
Trying to clarify the indemnification request, Smith said staff doesn't generally require the agreements for discretionary permits issued by the board, but does suggest them when staff sees "things going south" and grows concerned that something has garnered enough controversy that a lawsuit might follow.
The whole quarry controversy seems to have left all sides smarting.
While the board voted Jan. 7 to deny the appeal outright and approve the quarry's reclamation plan, it appears no indemnification agreement had been reached as of Tuesday, according to county Supervising Planner Steve Werner. The reclamation plan won't go into effect, Werner said, until the hold-harmless agreement is signed.
Meanwhile, Mierau and Baykeeper are mulling whether to appeal to the state department of mines and reclamation, the ultimate authority on state mining law. Though they say they're glad the appeal shed some light on the issue, both said they are deeply disappointed in the board's handling of the issue. It's the board's responsibility, Mierau said, to balance the needs of local timber, fisheries, ranching and resource industries over the long term.
"The county failed," he said. "They've clearly taken sides and they've clearly shown no interest in protecting natural resources, and that's a bigger issue than just a quarry."