Gold diggers: Quarry venture with ‘passive’ ties to billionaire Democratic donor sparks fight with foothill ranchers

Amador County ignored EIR findings in approving project

Rancher Sondra West-Moore is appealing her county’s approval of a rock quarry and aggregate plant that would extract up to 5 million tons of rock near her Ione home.

Rancher Sondra West-Moore is appealing her county’s approval of a rock quarry and aggregate plant that would extract up to 5 million tons of rock near her Ione home.

Photo by Michael Mott

This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.

Sondra West-Moore slipped on her work boots and gazed out over the 40 acres of rolling grassland and heritage oaks her father, a retired Marine colonel, looked after for decades. The acidic, nutrient-poor soil supports rare species of manzanita and buckwheat, some of which are found nowhere outside this region.

Col. Fraser E. West was one of those rare species. A man known for his pitbull spirit, course wit and forceful dedication, West was also known to care as much for his neighbors and community as he did the champion longhorn cattle he bred. After earning the Silver Star and Purple Heart in World War II, the world-class roper and skier spent a life building rodeo arenas, attending fairs and, eventually, raising longhorns in Ione—a tiny town 34 miles from the Capitol.

In his last days, Col. West urged his daughter to keep up another fight, without him.

“’Got to. Have to,’” West-Moore recalled him saying. “I told him, ’We’ll keep going.’”

West-Moore, a corporate negotiator for HP, is engaged in a four-year legal battle over whether a 278-acre rock quarry should be built on Newman Ridge, an oak-studded hill a stone’s throw from her home. The industrial development would include the quarry and, just down the road, a 113-acre gravel, concrete and asphalt plant.

If constructed, the Newman Ridge quarry and Edwin Center North plant would operate for at least 50 years.

According to a 2012 Environmental Impact Report, residents would see increased truck traffic, and thousands of tons of emissions—nearly double the threshold set by the Amador Air District. The EIR also found that that the project would have “significant and unavoidable” impacts on wildlife.

The Amador County Board of Supervisors approved the project.

Birds trilled as West-Moore patted a stocky longhorn after walking through the brush and oak woodlands. “This valley has always been agriculture,” she said. “This project affects 23 family-owned, legacy ranches. We just want to do what we do here.”

In 2006, developers William Bunce and John Telischak, along with Farallon Capital Management, a $20 billion investment firm, bought 13,000 acres including the project site for $90 million. According to an article in the Sacramento Business Journal following the purchase, the tract was intended for a multiple-use development including mining, housing, conservation and grazing. The Nature Conservancy preserved a piece of the land, which straddles Sacramento and Amador counties, in 1999. (That property is famous locally because it once belonged to Charles Howard, who owned the racehorse Seabiscuit). The Amador County portion wasn’t included in the conservation easement.

Throughout her involvement with the project, West-Moore has pointed to Farallon’s founder and former CEO, Tom Steyer. The billionaire hedge-fund manager, one of California’s top Democratic political donors, has devoted himself to funding environmental campaigns and other philanthropic work since stepping down as Farallon’s CEO in 2012. His nonprofit political action committee, NextGen America, has backed climate change-supportive candidates and launched campaigns to register voters. He is said to be considering a run for California’s governorship in 2018.

Questioned about this project, launched five years before he gave up day-to-day management of Farallon, Steyer’s team would not make their boss available, and would not answer specific questions about the project.

In response to a series of questions asking Steyer to square his position as a high-profile environmentalist and his company’s involvement with this controversial project, Aleigha Cavalier would only say that Steyer is a “passive” investor.

“Tom Steyer has no stake in this project,” Cavalier said via email, adding that the deal was conceived as a real estate project. “Tom Steyer left Farallon at the end of 2012 and sold his management stake.”

The case pitting West-Moore and the project opponents against Amador County and the developers may soon come to a conclusion. The Third District Court of Appeals is expected to set a court date in the next several weeks.

In October 2012, 40-plus residents, ranchers, developers and community members filed into the Amador County government center to weigh in on the development. The meeting was the first for West-Moore’s Ione Valley, Land, Air and Water Defense Alliance, or LAWDA. Supporters and opponents argued environmental conservation and jobs in the economically-depressed county.

The county planning commission approved the EIR a few months earlier, despite comments from state agencies pressing for more details on the industrial facility’s impacts.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board called for a report on the project’s impacts on groundwater, likely drought-stricken; Caltrans and the city of Ione requested studies on traffic; the county’s environmental health department requested clarity on why water demands differed in parts of the report; and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asked for more on the project’s wetland effects.

The state Office of Mining Reclamation indicated “a number of serious deficiencies” in the project’s reclamation plan, to be used after the rock was mined. The then-state Department of Fish and Game suggested more mitigation efforts and also called for more information.

The county’s air pollution officer, Michael Boitano, didn’t comment, except to approve deferring the project’s mitigation of toxic air contaminants until after the EIR, when developers apply for an air permit. Developer Bunce contends those mitigation plans were deferred appropriately.

“The air board is the only regulatory agency with that jurisdiction,” said Bunce, who contended other mitigation measures were extensive.

Foothill Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit, said the county should have seen and addressed those plans before project approval.

The EIR states long-term emissions of PM10, a mixture of materials including smoke and soot, would be up to 679.06 pounds per day after mitigation efforts, nearly double the 384-pound threshold considered acceptable by the Amador Air District. N0x, nitrogen oxide, would be 6.8 times its threshold.

The EIR states those emissions levels would be “significant and unavoidable.” LAWDA’s attorney, Doug Carstens, acquired via the Public Records Act an email to Boitano from an air quality consultant, Ray Kapahi, who said cumulative emissions would be more significant due to other quarries nearby. The suit alleges those figures were incomplete and were not cumulative.

Asked about emissions, Bunce said the county carefully reviewed the mitigation measures and was later affirmed by the courts. The project was also moved several hundred feet to accommodate air quality concerns, though the Public Records Act-secured email notes that air quality risks could be a concern up to 2 miles around the center.

In 2012, supervisors voted nearly unanimously against appealing the EIR.

“We all know why gas in California is so high. We have more regulations and taxes than any other state,” Supervisor Ted Novelli said. “We have a possibility here to bring jobs to the county.”

Heritage came up, given the region’s history of mining. Jim Scully, a wheat farmer and one of 26 Ione residents who brought his concerns to the meeting, said some things should remain buried.

“We have homicide, genocide and prostitution in our history also, but you don’t see them anymore,” he said. “You go down any road in western Amador County and you’ll see an open pit” from unreclaimed mines.

After the county’s approval, LAWDA filed a lawsuit claiming the project failed to comply with state law around EIRs.

Two years after it took up the case, the Amador Superior Court agreed with LAWDA: The EIR was fully de-certified, given insufficient studies on traffic and rail infrastructure. Yet, instead of reviewing the entire EIR, the county only recirculated one chapter related to traffic and rail travel, not their effects on air quality or other environmental effects.

The county was able to do so legally: As the project’s lead agency, it can decide which parts to recirculate. After the additional studies were done, in 2015, supervisors re-approved the partially-changed EIR.

LAWDA challenged the decision by going to the voters with a ballot referendum, receiving over 2,000 signatures, nearly double what was needed. If passed, the county would have had to change the zoning from industrial to residential-agriculture, change its General Plan amendment and question the mine’s reclamation plan.

Supervisors could have reversed their decision to approve the project or let the ballot referendum go to a vote. Instead, they chose a third route: Suing West-Moore and LAWDA.

The county won the lawsuit; the court said that there was no legal precedent for a citizens’ group to challenge a mine-reclamation plan. LAWDA appealed.

Later, the state changed its reclamation regulations to allow public challenges like the one racing toward a conclusion.

West-Moore now questions whether Amador County’s decision complies with the state’s new groundwater legislation, and whether the EIR was complete. The county says only that the trial court affirmed its position.

Back at her ranch, West-Moore glanced at a magazine article that featured her father under the headline: “Marine for all seasons.”

“He told me, ’You’re going to have to do this.’ When a colonel tells you that, you do it.”