This is part one of a two-part series on CEMEX gravel mines drying up neighboring wells.
Is anyone grateful for the drought? CEMEX is. Founded in Mexico in 1906, CEMEX, one of the world’s largest building material suppliers and cement producers, runs operations all across the globe. It is conveniently blaming the drought on the fact that residential wells in Lemon Cove are drying up – when in fact the evidence suggests otherwise.
In 2005, CEMEX opened the Stillwell Project in Tulare County to mine gravel. The mine is on property east of Lemon Cove and north of the antique stores along Highway 198. Several homes with private wells border the mine. Their wells risked going dry as a result of a lake formed when CEMEX started excavating the gravel. As a requirement of the conditional use permit (CUP), CEMEX had to conduct monthly groundwater monitoring and pump water into a recharge ditch to maintain groundwater levels. The recharge ditch ran the length of the mine and was to prevent the lake from sucking the private wells dry.
In January of this year, the Resource Management Agency (RMA), responsible for enforcing the conditional use permit, received five complaints about wells going dry, or about to go dry, next to the Stillwell Project. In response to the complaints, and in compliance with their CUP, CEMEX hired a company, EMKO Environmental, Inc. to do a hydrogeologic evaluation of the groundwater level around the Stillwell Project quarry.
Multinational companies such as CEMEX are not renowned for hiring people who disagree with them; it was no surprise, therefore, when EMKO Environmental completely exonerated the Mexican cement company–despite the fact that their own monthly groundwater monitoring reports showed that the water levels dropped a few months after CEMEX stopped filling the recharge trench. Groundwater levels had dropped in 2011, but no resident’s well water level dropped and no wells ran dry. Nevertheless, EMKO Environmental concluded that the private wells went dry due to the drought.
Forty-two wells have gone dry in rural Tulare County because of the drought, but that is not an issue in this foothill region. Lemon Cove doesn’t have a water problem. Lake Kaweah sits right above the town, and the Kaweah River, which is running right now, runs through it. The Wutchumna and Lemon Cove Ditches, along with several others, and the ponds created by CEMEX, are brimming full of water.
During a meeting in March between the effected residents and RMA, the private well owners said that the RMA agreed to do their own independent hydrology report. But then the RMA reneged on their promise. “The RMA got scared to run their own peer review because it’s a huge multinational corporation. RMA decided to hide instead,” said Lemon Cove property and business owner Tom Cairns.
Mike Spata, director of the RMA, begs to differ. He said that his department has been working extensively on this issue for months and that the RMA plans on doing a full peer review. Spata said that the CUP says its CEMEX’ responsibility to hire the hydrologist to make a report, but that it is the RMA’s responsibility to review the accuracy and data in the report, and all other evidence while doing their peer review. He said that the evidence will lead to the right conclusions and will be presented in a public hearing where everyone will get their say.
Spata did recognize that it is CEMEX’ position that the wells dried up due to the drought, but that is not necessarily the RMA’s position. RMA will not take a position on why the residents’ wells went dry, or prematurely order CEMEX to fill the recharge trench, until after a professional and thorough review of the evidence is completed.
“These are complex engineering questions and cannot have superficial answers” said Spata.
Lemon Cove Residents Address the Board of Supervisors
To the residents whose wells have gone dry there is nothing complex about it. Their wells were running fine when the recharge trench was full, and they went dry soon after CEMEX stopped filling the trench. After the effected residents submitted written complaints and participated in two meetings without result, they went to the July 8 Tulare County Board of Supervisors meeting to voice their discontent. Dick Polly of Lemon Cove described the problem, “Our wells are in a aquifer that is from 12 to 20 feet deep along the original Kaweah River bank. A boulder layer allows the water to flow from the northeast along the river bank to our wells. The Stillwell Lake is 60 feet deep and covers more than 30 acres. A giant hole was excavated 60 feet deep in the Stillwell site due north and west of our wells. The hole is now a lake that contains at least 1,000 acre-feet of water drained from the aquifer our wells depend on for water.”
In other words, the lake is deeper than their wells, and has sucked them dry. George Clausen, of Woodlake, pointed out that water sitting idle in CEMEX’ ponds evaporates every day, “and that is water that Tulare County will never get back.”
Drought or no drought, CEMEX has already acknowledged that their pond sucks the water from the residents’ wells. Otherwise, why would it have constructed a recharge trench and spent eight years keeping it full of water? But on September 4, 2013, the wiring to the pumps was stolen for the second time. The decision was made to not fix the pumps and thus discontinue filling the recharge trench. That’s when the underground water levels started plummeting. Instead of investing in putting the wiring underground to thwart metal thieves, CEMEX now conveniently uses the drought as an excuse not to fix the pumps.
Rob and Sissy Morton’s private well water is usually at six to eight feet. Now that the trench is dry the water has fallen to 16 feet three inches. Their well goes down to 16 feet 10 inches. This means the water just trickles in. They can pump about two gallons of water before just sucking up air. After a few minutes, they can get two more gallons of water and then air again. It used to take three or four minutes to fill their pressure tank that supplies their house with water, but now that requires 45 minutes. It takes a half an hour of pumping just to get enough water in their tank to do a load of dishes.
Rob Morton has resorted to hauling home water given to him from friends and relatives just to do the family’s laundry. They conserve the little water they get from their well for the toilettes or to take a shower once a week.
“You know most people take a shower every day,” said Morton.
The Mortons used to have a vegetable garden to help with their food bill but have not been able to plant since January.
This has fallen hard on Morton’s wife, Sissy. Sissy Morton has a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease and has to do peritoneal dialysis at home three times a week. She also has to do Hemodialisis several times a week at a clinic. Dialysis has to be done in completely sanitary environment and to do that they need water. “Our water situation has become a life or death situation,” said Rob Morton, “It’s been extremely stressful. The hardest part is watching my wife suffer.”
Down the dirt road from the Mortons live Mary and Orville Cloud. Their well goes down 25 feet and they have never had a problem in the 17 years they have lived there. In January, their well went completely dry and they now depend on friends to supply them with water.
Orville Cloud wrote a letter of complaint, went to the meeting in March with RMA, and the meeting in May with CEMEX. “I didn’t think much of the meetings. I don’t think they were for us in any way, shape, or form.” The Clouds had to give up their extensive garden, and this has made their food bills go up more than their social security can stretch to cover.
Though CEMEX claims that its mining and reclamation activities have nothing to do with the decreased water levels in neighboring wells, at the county’s request CEMEX made the following offer: “Although it has no obligation to do so, as part of CEMEX’ good neighbor operations, CEMEX is willing to provide the landowners with financial assistance as contained herein in connection with the installation of a single shared private well.” In the agreement, CEMEX offered four residents up to $12,000, to pay for half of the cost of digging a communal well to supply water to their homes. The agreement would not pay for hooking the homes up to the communal well nor for the balance of the well if the cost went over $24,000.
Elias Rodriguez and his wife, who is blind, stated the following to the board of supervisors: “We are a poor farmworker family with little income and we are being asked to spend a very large amount of money on a new well sometime in the future just to keep our home, when historically the hydrology report showed no severe loss of water levels during the past nine years until this year. Well drillers are backlogged for two to three years right now. So this offer will not help our water problem right now.”
The board of supervisors listened intently to each person’s testimony and, through the RMA, made priority number one “getting these people water,” said Spata. Concurrently, the RMA will be gathering the information to solve the problem. Spata was hopeful that through the several drought relief programs there would be the resources to include the Lemon Cove residents with others in Tulare County whose wells have gone dry.
The Conditional Use Permit
The Stillwell Project Permit was issued in 1998 and requires CEMEX to comply with a series of conditions. Number 49 in the Conditions of Approval states, “the project shall not affect the water level, yield or quality, of any well both during the mining operations and subsequently as a reclaimed site. Upon receipt of a written complaint from any owner of a pre-existing well which details an alleged impact to the well’s water level, yield, or water quality, the RMA shall request a report from a licensed hydrogeologist explaining the problem. If a significant problem can be professionally demonstrated by a licensed hydrogeologist to be caused by mining activities, then immediate action must be taken to correct the condition, which may include, but is not limited to, modifying the recharge ditches to provide more recharge capacity, reducing the amount of pit de-watering, or if necessary, ceasing mining operations.”
Besides stating very clearly that the RMA needs to hire an independent hydrologist to do a report it also obviates what Martin Rodriguez said to the BOS, “The simple solution to our well problem is to pump water into the recharge trenches now. Condition 49 is written in clear English. If it is not followed, then all permit conditions in Tulare County are null and void.”
Orville Cloud said it best when addressing the board of supervisors during public comment. “Our aquifer is now dry and the CEMEX lake is slowly filling. No amount of rainfall or river flow will put water in our well again as long as the CEMEX lake level is far below the level of our well.”
As for Spata, he asks, “Is the empty ditch the problem? We have unanswered questions and the RMA is not going to take a position until after the peer review is completed.”
Part two will focus on another, older gravel mine within a mile of the Stillwell Project, which may be about to cause similar problems. The ponds occuring in Lemon Cove could be indicative of the potential problems caused by the McKay’s Point project.