CEMEX and Residents Continue Negotiations Over Dry Wells

Tulare County Planning Commission met on April 8 to continue the public hearing and consider the settlement progress made between CEMEX and the neighbors of its Stillwell mine whose wells have gone dry.

Mike Spata, Director of the Resource Management Agency (RMA), started the hearing by informing the commissioners that the lawyers were present to report that both sides have reached a tentative agreement. He also explained, the RMA has a draft agreement of revisions to the conditional use permit that CEMEX and the affected residents are expected to sign.

When the commissioners asked what those revisions were, Spata said that negotiations were still confidential and that he would outline them at the next public hearing. He also said that there would be no surprises because all the permit issues had been discussed in the previous hearings.

Paul Mitchell, lawyer for CEMEX, said that he cannot divulge the contents of the negotiations, but confirms that they have happened, and that CEMEX signed the agreement last week.

Ray Carlson, lawyer for the affected residents, said that they were ready to also sign the agreement.  CEMEX, the residents and RMA are all on the same page concerning the revised conditions on CEMEX’ use permit, Carlson said.

Spata declared the commission can consider the case settled and asked that the planning commission return in 30 days, after all the documents were signed.

The problems started at Stillwell in November of 2013, after several residents’ wells dried up because CEMEX stopped filling the recharge trench that maintained their water levels. The multi-national   corporation initially refused to fill the recharge trench because someone stole the wiring to the pumps that transferred the water from their pond. CEMEX tried to blame the drought for the dry wells, but got called out on their false allegations by a peer report conducted by the consulting firm Tully and Young. Soon after the peer report the lawyers took over the case.

With a signed agreement between the residents, CEMEX and the RMA imminent, everything is status quo until reclamation of the mine begins or until CEMEX decides to turn off the pumps. Currently the water from the 50-foot-deep, 30-acre pond, created by CEMEX’ mining activities, fills the recharge trench and lowers the pond. The pond then refills with water from the underground aquifer and the process starts again–proving the point that outside consultants, local water experts and the community  have said all along: that CEMEX’ mining activities drained its neighbors’ wells.

Anticipating more legal trouble, CEMEX also started filling the recharge trench next to their Lemon Cove Facility. CEMEX did not speak to these affected residents, and were not ordered to so by RMA; they just, out of the blue, started up the pumps. Once CEMEX filled that recharge trench, the neighbors’ wells went back to normal. The farmers and residents who live next to CEMEX’ Lemon Cove Facility, about a mile northwest of Stillwell, have experienced problems with their wells for years, allegedly because of CEMEX’ mine. They were not part of the public hearing or the settlement.

Even with a signed agreement, the Stillwell mine neighbors’ property values have been cut in half while they have incurred about $20,000 in expenses. The ordeal for the families living next to the Stillwell mine has not just been dealing with the lack of water, but trying to coordinate their jobs and families with going to hearings and meetings, finding a lawyer and effectively documenting the details of their wells going dry–all with very limited financial resources.

Of the affected homes, one head of the household is on home dialysis, another is blind and another couple is extremely elderly with a range of health problems. One family just gave up and left, incurring huge losses to their property as it has become unsellable. Right now the home has water but that could stop any day, depending on whether CEMEX decides to keep the pumps running.

The affected residents are hopeful that the RMA shoulders this huge responsibility next time and that the Tulare County Planning Commission prevents this from happening in the future by ensuring that CEMEX never mines gravel in the county again.

Because the negotiations are still confidential, neither Spata nor the lawyers could answer any of the planning commission’s questions. During this lengthy process it is unclear what role the planning commission has played in helping the affected residents, except to provide a venue for both sides to air their grievances. Once lawyers get involved the planning commission’s hands seem to be tied and they are unable to impart their land use wisdom or have any say in the agreement.

CEMEX is close to making all their legal problems go away with Stillwell and the Lemon Cove Facility–just in time for them to ask for another mining permit, this time at McKay Point. Carlson was asked what happens if CEMEX gets the mining permit at McKay Point then turns off the pumps.

“Then the whole process starts all over,” he said.

The next planning commission meeting concerning the settlement will be Wednesday, May 13.

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