Stillwell Mine Public Hearing Attracts Big Crowd

Property owner David Stillwell speaks to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors.
Property owner David Stillwell speaks to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors.

The Tulare County Planning Commission held a public hearing December 10 to determine the future of CEMEX’ mining permit. The possible recommendations ranged from revocation to taking no action. Mike Spata, director of Resource Management Agency (RMA) started the proceedings by informing the commissioners that the amount of information concerning Stillwell Mine is voluminous. He recommended, before the hearing even started, that after all stakeholders have their say, the hearing be continued to the next planning commission meeting for further discussion.

Greg Young, an engineer from the consulting firm Tully and Young–which wrote the county’s peer review–presented their findings first. Even though their final review was 533 pages long, Young stayed focused on three conditions specified in the Stillwell mining permit.

Condition #48 states that CEMEX is to make monthly reports to the RMA about the amount of water delivered to the recharge trench. Condition #49 states that the mine cannot affect the water level, yield, or quality of any well. Condition #55 states that the recharge trench shall contain a sufficient amount of water to maintain water levels in neighboring wells.

Young presented evidence that CEMEX violated all three conditions, but that the main condition under dispute was number 49. Young added that CEMEX’ consultant, EMKO Environmental, used an incomplete set of facts and that concluding that the wells went dry due to the drought was without merit. The peer review came to the conclusion that CEMEX’ mining activities caused their neighbors’ wells to go dry.

Paul Mitchell, a lawyer for CEMEX, gave the rebuttal. Sprinkled throughout his presentation were potshots at the Valley Voice, an attempt to again discredit Tom Cairns of Lemon Cove, and accusations that the four residents whose wells had gone dry were unresponsive, difficult, uncooperative and ungrateful. While accomplishing that goal, Mitchell stressed three major points: that the domestic wells went dry because of the drought; that CEMEX has no obligation to keep the V-trench full while not actively mining; and lastly, even though CEMEX was not at fault, that the company offered to cost-share digging a new communal well. But he stated that the residents were impossible to work with and never responded to the company’s “generous” offer. Mitchell ended with, “you can lead a horse to water but, well, we all know the saying.”

An important fact not brought up during the hearing was that CEMEX withheld information from RMA and the residents that it stopped gravel production on May 13, 2013. If the company had, in fact, believed it had no legal obligation to fill the trench while not engaged in mining activities, it would have stopped filling the trench in May of 2013. Or, it would have stopped filling the trench the first time the wires were stolen from the pumps on June 17, 2013. But the company fixed the pumps and resumed filling the trench until the wires were stolen again in September. Many theories revolve around why CEMEX withheld this information, but it was clearly demonstrated that the company knew it had a legal obligation to continue filling the trench.

Dr. Andrew Kopania, principal hydrogeologist for EMKO Environmental, came to the podium and added to Mitchell’s presentation by saying that, “just because you see an effect doesn’t mean there is one.” He reiterated that CEMEX’ mining activities had had no effect on the residents’ wells.
Sometime during Mitchell’s presentation, planning commission chair, Ed Dias, asked if CEMEX would be willing to dig deeper wells for each of the four residents. Mitchell responded with a very hesitant “yes.”

Rob Morton’s presentation summed up all the salient points of the hearing. He and his wife bought their property next to the future Stillwell mine in 2001. They were sold by the beautiful view, which is now blocked by a 15-foot weed-infested berm, and the reliable aquifer, which is now compromised.

They have two grandchildren in their home, and Mrs. Morton has to undergo daily dialysis at home that requires complete sanitation. Morton choked-up when describing the hardship his wife goes through several times a week doing home dialysis without water. Their well went dry soon after CEMEX stopped filling the V-trench in September 2013. All of their landscaping and fruit trees died, and they had to send the kids to a friend’s house to bathe. Morton spent $7,000 of his own money to provide enough water to the house to shower once a week and occasionally wash the dishes.

“Ever since CEMEX stopped filling the recharge trench, it has been a battle to get the problem resolved,” he said. The residents wrote letters, spoke before the board of supervisors, and met with CEMEX representatives. He acknowledged that CEMEX offered to cost-share drilling a communal well that– after digging, laying the pipes, hooking up to each home, and metering–would easily cost over $100,000. CEMEX offered to contribute $12,000.

Mitchell repeated several times that the neighbors were ungrateful and unresponsive to the company’s offer. He neglected to point out that none of the residents were financially able to pay their share of the remaining $88,000–some $22,000 each–even if they wanted a communal well. Besides the many pitfalls associated with the offer, there was also the possibility that a deeper well would not produce water. Lemon Cove has not been affected by the drought, and the community is served by a very dependable aquifer, but it is shallow. Digging deeper wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem.

Morton ended on a very emotional note, saying it has been very upsetting and stressful to sit and watch his family suffer just because CEMEX had not complied with their permit. “And that has been proven here today.”

Ken Schmidt, a professional hydrologist who has worked previously for the county, stated that CEMEX’ own data proves that the recharge trench works. He also agreed with the conclusions of Tully and Young’s peer review that the gravel mine is fully to blame for the neighboring domestic wells going dry. Dias asked Schmidt if digging deeper wells would solve the problem. Said Schmidt, “we could hit water or not at all. No one alive is going to know that until we drill.”

Frank Callahan, a neighbor of CEMEX’ Lemon Cove Facility–a stone’s throw from Stillwell–is experiencing the same problem. He was one of the last residents to give testimony. Spata mentioned at the beginning of the hearing that the Lemon Cove Facility might be considered for discussion during this public hearing. It was no surprise when Mitchell adamantly disagreed. The concept of a recharge trench had been tested at the Lemon Cove facility and proven that it kept neighboring wells at normal levels. CEMEX knew from its experience at the Lemon Cove Facility that when it stopped filling the recharge trench at Stillwell, the neighboring domestic wells would go dry. Some residents who live next to the Lemon Cove Facility contend it was intentional what CEMEX did, and not only feel that the company should lose its permit, but should face criminal charges.

Callahan has irrigated his citrus grove since the biggest drought in the state in 1977 with no problems, until mining started in the aquifer right next to his property. George Claussen, another neighbor of the Lemon Cove Facility, had a similar experience. His parents planted a citrus grove in 1905 that had never been affected by the several severe droughts during the last 100-plus years, until mining started in the Kaweah River aquifer. When the recharge trench was kept full, their wells went back to pre-mining levels. Now that CEMEX has also stopped filling their trench, just as it did at Stillwell, the local farmers have struggled to irrigate their groves. The local farmers are hoping that the planning commission does something about their water problems after it concludes the public hearings about Stillwell.

The most telling element of the public hearing was the fact that the affected residents spoke on their own behalf–even enlisting an hydrologist with no skin in the game–while no one from CEMEX spoke for CEMEX. Instead, the company hired an expert, Kopania, who has been labeled by a peer as a “hired hydro-geologic prostitute,” and a lawyer, Mitchell, with a major ax to grind, to present their case.

After three-and-a-half hours of presentations and testimonies, it was decided that the hearing would be continued to the February 25 planning commission meeting. Chairman Dias stated that it seemed to him that CEMEX and the residents weren’t that far apart in terms of a settlement; Spata echoed that sentiment, and was hopeful that by February the planning commission would be voting on the details of an agreement. A possible settlement could include digging new wells for each resident, reimbursing them for their expenses, and compensating them for the loss in value to their properties. If no settlement is reached before that time, the planning commission will make their final decision next year and it will be passed on to the board of supervisors.

When stacked, the amount of documentation sits about three feet high–yet the issue at hand was boiled down into one simple sentence uttered by Rob Morton: “Why are our wells dry and that pit is full of water?” CEMEX has not deigned to answer that question, but the residents living next to the Stillwell Mine pray that the Tulare County Planning Commission does.

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