Locals lament lack of leadership from their supervisors
It’s one step forward and two steps back for the residents who live next to the Stillwell mine in Lemon Cove. In January, several residents’ wells dried up when CEMEX stopped filling the recharge trench that maintained their water levels. The multi-national initially refused to fill the recharge trench because someone stole the wiring to the pumps that transferred the water from their pond. CEMEX then tried to blame the drought for the dry wells but got called out on their false allegations by a peer report conducted by the Tully and Young consulting firm.
In a dramatic turn of events, and with no logical reason given, CEMEX decided to turn the pumps back on and fill the trenches. Several hypotheses have been postulated by those affected as to why, but one thing is for sure, it is not going smoothly.
CEMEX was to start filling the recharge trenches on September 2. That was a Wednesday. By Thursday they were still having trouble locating their pump and getting it started. When they finally located the pumps submerged in their pond and turned them on, a faulty flip-off switch misfired and the pumps stopped barely 48 hours later. Rob Morton owns the first house in a line of four that would benefit from filling the recharge trench. But it took more than two weeks before CEMEX could get organized to fill the trench across from his house. Since that time, his well has gone from 16 feet to 11.5 feet, and his family can now take showers and do the dishes.
But by September 26, CEMEX was having more undisclosed problems and the trench across from Morton’s house went dry. His well has held steady at 11.5 feet, but his neighbors wells remained dry. Finally, on Monday, September 29–nearly a month after CEMEX was supposed to fill the trench–all four homes had running water. If CEMEX can manage to keep their pumps running, the residents’ water problems are solved–for now.
A mile away as a crow flies are two mines at the Lemon Cove Facility. The mines have ceased activity, and in violation of their permit, CEMEX shut the pumps off that filled their recharge trench. Farmers’ and residents’ wells next to the mine have dropped so low they never know from one day to the next if they will have water. As you read this article, CEMEX’ Lemon Cove Facility mining pits are brimming full of water, evaporating into the air, while farmers struggle to keep their citrus from dying. One resident hypothesized that Stillwell was getting all of the attention because of its impact on residents. The wells next to the Lemon Cove Facility that are going dry are predominantly for farming.
The Tulare County Board of Supervisors are very vocal about the loss of agriculture land to development, so it is puzzling why they allow a multi-national from Mexico to disrupt our farming industry.
“Stillwell is a huge black eye for CEMEX”
As one farmer put it, “CEMEX has blatantly violated so many of the conditions of their permit and the county has yet to force them to comply.” Another resident lamented, “You’d think that the board of supervisors would be more concerned about what is going on with the gravel mines and not just ignore what is happening since they are the ones who approved the permit. If you are running an organization like the county, you should know what is going on. They should be proactive in protecting their constituents instead of just reacting to criticism.”
The following are some of the conditions with which CEMEX does not comply.
- Condition number 55 says that the recharge trenches shall contain a sufficient amount of water to maintain water levels in neighboring wells. It does not matter if the mine is in production. It is up to CEMEX to fill the trench, and it is up to the county to make sure that they do. As one local resident said “They (the county) are the ones to give the permit. We didn’t, they did. CEMEX had no right to shut off the pumps to the recharge trenches and the county needs to take responsibility.”
- Condition number 48 says that CEMEX is to make available to the RMA data containing the amounts of water delivered to the recharge trench. When the RMA received data saying that no water was being delivered to the recharge trench, it was they who should have sounded the alarm. The recharge trenches are fenced off and inaccessible, so it should not have been left up to the residents to come to the RMA, and then complain at the Tulare County Board of Supervisor’s meetings, before something got done.
- Condition number 77 says that after a year of non-activity their operation will be deemed idle. “Within 90 days of the surface mine becoming idle, the operator shall either file an Interim Management Plan, or shall commence reclamation in accordance with the approved reclamation plan.”
The Notice of Preparation report for McKay Point Reservoir implies that mining stopped at Stillwell in May of 2013. Tom Cairns noticed that the last truckload of gravel taken over to the Lemon Cove facility was almost 80% fines and only 20% usable gravel. He was not sure of the date but that it was spring of last year. That would make the mine idle for 17 months, well beyond the time CEMEX is supposed to start reclamation. Reclamation is estimated to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The county is the lead agency for the Stillwell Project and CEMEX is the operator. For the McKay Point Reservoir, Tulare Irrigation District (TID) is the lead agency but CEMEX is the also operator.
CEMEX does not need this black eye right now as the McKay Point Reservoir Project goes into its EIR stage of approval. And TID doesn’t need the headache. TID has put a huge amount of time, money and resources to make McKay Point Reservoir an asset to the community and an asset for future generations. TID has been accountable and completely transparent. CEMEX hides. They don’t return phone calls. They forbid anyone from entering their property, and shroud all activities and decisions in mystery. If CEMEX is not going to comply with their permit, and continues to deny all accountability, then the RMA needs to revoke their permit. CEMEX is not only endangering their current mines but may be the reason McKay Point Reservoir might not be built.
As it stands now, the residents neighboring Stillwell mine have water and the farmers next to the Lemon Cove facility have little. What we do know for sure is that we don’t know why CEMEX decided to turn the pumps on at Stillwell. Were they being neighborly, as they like to call themselves? Did they realize people were going to figure out they have been idle for 17 months and they did not want to pay for the reclamation? Is it what Pete Lo Castro, CEMEX manager, said–that they were going to resume mining, even though there wasn’t a lot of cobble there in the first place? Is it that they figured out people are watching and they better get their act together or the McKay Project will never be approved?