RMA Starts Peer Review of CEMEX’ Stillwell Project

This is part two of an ongoing series about CEMEX, water and wells going dry in Lemon Cove. Read part one here.

RMA delivers three months supply of drinking water to Lemon Cove residents. Pictured are Mary and Orville Cloud with their dog Patches.
RMA delivers three months supply of drinking water to Lemon Cove residents. Pictured are Mary and Orville Cloud with their dog Patches.

At the end of 2013, a row of Lemon Cove homes along the Stillwell Mining Project, owned and operated by CEMEX, started to see the underground water levels drop. By January, several of their wells had gone dry. The residents concluded that their wells went dry after CEMEX stopped filling the recharge trench. This trench is an integral part of Tulare County’s granting CEMEX permission to operate the Stillwell gravel mine.

The residents alerted the Resource Management Agency (RMA), which is in charge of enforcing gravel companies’ compliance with their surface mining permits. One of the resident’s letters to the RMA stated, “When Tulare County gave permission to the mining company to mine the area around Lemon Cove, it was with the assurance that the recharge trench would be kept running to provide water to the wells for the nearby houses. This trench is no longer being turned on and our well is running dry and pumping air.”

The Conditional Use Permit (CUP) states that on receipt of complaints about the underground water levels, CEMEX is obligated to hire a professional hydrologist to find the cause and/or fix the problem. It was no surprise when the CEMEX-hired company, EMKO Environmental, Inc., concluded that the multinational company had nothing to do with the residents’ wells going dry. Dr. Andrew A. Kopania is the president and principal hydrologist for EMKO Environmental, and he concluded that the Lemon Cove wells went dry due to the drought.

After months of debate, meetings, and little bit of foot-dragging, RMA hired an independent engineering company to do a peer review of Kopania’s findings and review all other information concerning the Lemon Cove wells. The peer report should be ready by the end of August.

Property Owner’s Rebuttal to EMKO Environmental Hydrology Report

Tom Cairns, owner of Sierra Chief Quality Western Products, wrote in a letter to RMA that, “The CEMEX hydrology report recently issued on the Stillwell site is not complete and all discussions to date are hearsay until the water levels, referenced to mean sea level (MLS), are included in that report. These measurements are going to be the only basis for a discussion about the ‘cone of depression,’ mine excavation, and the neighboring water wells. This water level measurement is included in all hydrology reports, except this one.”

Dick Polly, a long-time Lemon Cove farmer, stated at the Tulare County Board of Supervisors meeting that, “the hydrology report that the RMA got this year is not complete. Elevations were not included, so the report is not valid. No one can make a decision until the levels of water in the Stillwell Lake and the surrounding wells are compared to mean sea level. The geology profiles across the Stillwell site were not included and that also makes the report invalid. Just assuming the wells are fed by water from the hillsides is conjecture. Find the aquifer for these wells and the Stillwell site using geological information which has not been developed.”

Dr. David Cehrs, a director on the Kings River Conservation District, who has a master’s degree in geology from California State University, Fresno, and a doctorate in hydrology from the University of Arizona, said that, “Dr. Andy Kopania is a hired hydrogeologic prostitute. He will say anything the person paying him wants, or not collect data that would incriminate his client.” Dr. Cehrs advised the Lemon Cove residents to hire their own hydrologist, even if it is expensive.

CEMEX’s Law Firm Attacks Locals

As stated on their website, “Mitchell Chadwick, LLP, is the premier natural resources boutique law firm in California, and the state’s foremost legal advisor to energy, mining, land use and renewable resource companies. We work throughout California, typically operating in 20 to 30 counties in any given year.”

This law firm was hired by CEMEX to defend their position.

Tom Cairns, the appointed spokesperson for the Lemon Cove residents, had written two concise letters in response to EMKO’s hydrology report and outlined other problems with the Stillwell Mine. In a June 19th letter from Mitchell Chadwick law firm to the RMA, they wrote a five-page, single-spaced document picking Cairns apart, down to the size of the pumps he referenced to fill the recharge trench. Mitchell Chadwick also claims that Cairns’ statement that, “well drillers in the county are unavailable for one year or more” is unproven. The law firm’s letter also states that CEMEX’s CUP does not require the unnecessary indexing of the water levels to the MSL.

The letter ends with, “CEMEX will continue to work with the Stillwell Project neighbors who are actually experiencing water level problem to provide some assistance as a good neighbor. CEMEX is in full compliance with the requirements of its CUP and has provided an expert hydrogeological report that proves Mr. Cairns’ claims are factually inaccurate.”

From the law firm’s reaction to Cairns’ letters, one could only conclude that he hit a nerve.

In a June 20th letter from Mitchell Chadwick to the RMA, the law firm again takes great pains to discredit Frank Callahan, a member of the Lemon Cove Neighbors group. Callahan, a well-respected, longtime Lemon Cove farmer, has a residential well that has been affected by another one of CEMEX’ gravel mines only a mile away from Stillwell. In this lengthy letter, Mitchell Chadwick refutes Callahan’s and his neighbor’s claims that CEMEX’ mining activities were negatively impacting their wells.

In very sloppy work, the law firm misspells the name of one of their experts and misstates their expert’s place of work. Their expert’s actual name is Paul Charpentier, who was indirectly quoted as saying that he, “confirmed that groundwater levels throughout the county have decreased by approximately one hundred feet or more due to the severe drought. In fact Mr. Chanterlier (sic) was surprised that the Lemon Cove Neighbors were not experiencing more severe water level problems due to the drought.”

Charpentier, who does private well sampling, knows firsthand about wells going dry in Tulare County. It is true that the drought has dried up wells in Farmersville, Monson-Sultana and Seville, among other communities. But that’s not a Lemon Cove problem. The water flows here, drought or not, and is flowing in the ditches right now, and fills Stillwell Lake, as you read this article.

Mitchell Chadwick concludes that the Lemon Cove Neighbors, who live next to the Lemon Cove Mine and Reclamation Project west of Highway 216, were only interested in a money grab. The law firm stated that the group wanted a similar offer proposed to the Stillwell Project neighbors. In that offer, CEMEX proposed to pay for half of a deeper communal well next to their Stilwell Project. Only paying for half of the well would have left four homeowners holding a $20,000 bill to actually get the water to their individual homes. The residents living next to the Stillwell Project politely declined CEMEX’ generous offer, and the Lemon Cove Neighbor’s would have also.

Tulare County Resource Management Agency Responds

Despite the fact that Mitchell Chadwick claims that it is beyond the scope of Tulare County to make CEMEX address Cairns’ unfounded concerns, RMA has recognized Cairns as the spokesperson for the Lemon Cove residents. In a July 16th letter addressed to Cairns, Michael Spata, associate director of RMA, outlines the four steps Tulare County intends to take.

RMA’s first priority was hiring Tully and Young, an engineering company, to do a peer review. An equal priority was given to delivering drinking water to those residents living next to the Stillwell Project. Using a grant received from the State Water Resources Control Board, RMA delivered a three-month supply of drinking water to the residents whose wells have gone dry.

The third step is completing the peer review and conducting a public hearing with the planning commission to determine whether the county should modify the Conditional Use Permit, revoke the permit or take no action. The fourth step is to continue to attempt to resolve the problem informally without having to conduct a public hearing.
After reading through CEMEX’ letters, reports and offers, an informal resolution does not seem likely. The engineering company, Tully and Young, are hoping to finish their evaluation of EMKO environmental report and all other information within two weeks. They have their work cut out for them. In this paper’s one-hour not-so-peer review process, we discovered that CEMEX’ hydrology report cherry-picked the facts to absolve themselves of the residents’ well woes. We also found a law firm obsessed with discrediting well-liked and well-respected members of our community and doing shoddy work to support their arguments.

That begs the question – how much more will Tully and Young discover, given their expertise and time?

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