2/16 UPDATE: Riverside County supervisors today denied permits for a proposed 414-acre strip mine near Temecula that opponents argued would damage the environment and increase health risks, while proponents touted its job- creating potential and tax benefits.
Board of Supervisors Chairman John Tavaglione cast the decisive vote in the 3-2 decision that followed three days of public testimony and nearly four hours of deliberations by the board.
"Based on the testimony, this project has too many uncertainties," Tavaglione said. "I cannot support this project."
Raucous cheers followed the supervisors' action, with several mine opponents loudly exclaiming "Thank you!"
Permits for the controversial Liberty Quarry were denied by the county planning commission in a 4-1 vote last September. Commissioners cited concerns about elevated levels of silica dust and other pollutants, the permanent impact on area aesthetics, including nighttime lights, and the adverse effects on area wildlife as reasons for their opposition.
Supervisor Jeff Stone, whose district encompasses the project zone, echoed the same worries in urging his colleagues today to reject the strip mine.
"All the planning commissioners struggled with competing interests," he said. "This is a tough decision, a tough vote ... But this project is incompatible (with the area)."
Supervisor Bob Buster joined Stone and Tavaglione in opposition, while Supervisors Marion Ashley and John Benoit voted in favor of the project.
ORIGINAL POST: On Tuesday, Riverside County supervisors completed a third public hearing on a proposed strip mine near Temecula without voting on the matter, opting instead to make a decision later in the week in order to digest testimony from opponents and supporters.
"I have good friends on both sides of the issue," said Board of Supervisors Chairman John Tavaglione. "Now I need to take my notes and spend some time on this."
The board will reconvene at 8:30 a.m. Thursday to debate whether to override a county planning commission decision last September to reject the 414-acre Liberty Quarry.
Supervisors Bob Buster and Jeff Stone signaled opposition to the strip mine, while Supervisor John Benoit appeared to be in favor. Tavaglione and Supervisor Marion Ashley gave no indication either way.
Today's hearing at the County Administrative Center in Riverside lasted more than eight hours, during which representatives from Watsonville-based Granite Construction, the mine operator, rebutted testimony by mine opponents who addressed the board on Jan. 30 and Feb. 6.
"We have reached out to every audience, changed and improved our plan (to allay concerns)," said Gary Johnson, resources manager for Granite. "Over the last seven years, we have worked hard to bring you a project that works for Riverside County ... The county will be better off with, than without, this project."
Johnson reiterated findings of the planning commission staff, as well as state and federal regulators, who concluded the quarry would be acceptable, provided certain mitigating measures were put in place.
Russ Erbes, an air quality scientist hired by Granite, challenged opponents' claims that pollution would double in communities near the 414-acre quarry.
"This is wrong," Erbes told the board. "The total impacts are less than the air quality standards of the state."
He said Granite's decision to use trucks with engines modified to burn clean diesel would result in a 50 to 90 percent reduction in particulate matter than would otherwise be possible with dump trucks that have standard engines.
Erbes repeatedly pointed to positive findings by the South Coast Air Quality Management District regarding the project's mitigation plans.
Buster countered that the agency had "long overlooked" pollution issues in Riverside County and was not immune to "political influence."
The supervisor expressed doubt about the need for the quarry when only one-third of its aggregate -- rock converted to gravel, sand and asphalt -- would be used for infrastructure projects in Riverside County, with the balance going to San Diego County, which has imposed a moratorium on strip mines.
"Why should this board consider a quarry of this size and scope?" Buster asked.
"This mine is the size of three rose bowls," Stone said. "Why shouldn't San Diego County provide its own aggregate for San Diego County, and Riverside County provide its own aggregate for Riverside County?"
Benoit, whose district covers the eastern county region, pointed out researchers' findings of a less than 1 percent increase in pollutants resulting from the project and said he liked the idea of lowering the number of gravel trucks crisscrossing county roads by having a mine that serves the southwest part of the county.
"I don't particularly like traveling behind these trucks on the highway," he said. "It's an important thing to consider."
A video presented by Granite featured four area doctors, all of whom endorsed the project, including Coachella Valley anesthesiologist Reed Saunders, who disputed opponents' allegations that pollution generated by the quarry would pose a health risk to residents.
"If what they're saying is true, we would have to believe all the quarries in Riverside County should be shut down," Saunders said.
The physician said there are eight quarries in the Coachella Valley, and none of them have the extensive mitigation provisions associated with the Liberty Quarry.
Granite is seeking a 75-year operating window, during which it plans to remove millions of tons of construction-grade aggregate from escarpments just north of the boundary separating Riverside and San Diego counties, east of the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve and south of Temecula, adjacent to Interstate 15 and Rainbow Valley Boulevard.
According to Inland Empire economist John Husing, one of Granite's experts, the Liberty Quarry would create more than 900 construction jobs in its first phase and thereafter support nearly 300 direct and indirect jobs.
He said the quarry would boost local tax receipts by $2.2 million annually.
In their 4-1 vote against the project, planning commissioners cited elevated levels of silica dust and other pollutants in the first two years of the project, the permanent impact on area aesthetics, including nighttime lights, and the adverse effects on area wildlife as reasons for their opposition.