Ozena granted permit extension as Ojai Quarry appeals violation notices
By Sondra Murphy
As Ventura County planners sift through 100 complaints about gravel truck travel through the Ojai Valley, the Stop the Trucks Coalition keeps adding to the load.
Since county enforcement is often complaint based, the coalition continues to serve as a catalyst to the process of holding mine companies along Maricopa Highway to their conditional use permits. But with government and attorneys involved, language interpretations for mining operations are in dispute, halting the process in appeals.
Besides STTC’s perpetual concerns about gravel truck travel during prohibited school peak hours on highways that merge into main Ojai Valley thoroughfares, new grievances against Ojai Quarry include supplying materials outside permitted work days. “There were two days, Jan. 15 and Jan. 16, during which the Ojai Quarry supplied to the Ventura County Watershed Protection District and we received a couple of complaints regarding that project,” said Dan Klemann, manager, commercial and industrial permits section for the Ventura County Planning Division. “One involved the Ojai Quarry operating on a Saturday when the conditions state they may only operate Monday through Friday and they may operate outside that providing they get planning director’s approval. The problem was the Ojai Quarry did that without getting the planning director’s approval.”
A possible misinterpretation of a letter given to Mosler Rock Products, the quarry’s owner, appears to be at the heart of that complaint. VCWPD operations and maintenance manager Karl Novak supplied the letter to Mosler for project clarification purposes, not as authorization. “We had some slope instability problems with an impending storm and needed to get rock out to stabilize the slope as quickly as possible,” said Novak, who stated in the letter that the project would be completed by Jan. 16. “It wasn’t finished in two days,” he said.
The number of trips it took to bring the materials to the project site is also being investigated. “Another complaint was that the Ojai Quarry exceeded the number of truck trips they may go in any one day,” said Klemann. “We issued a violation notice and the quarry has appealed it … They say we’ve gone beyond our authority and they point to the California Vehicle Code. But those conditions don’t come from the California Vehicle Code, they are our local zoning and ordinance requirements.”
Klemann was referring to a letter dated March 10 from Mosler’s attorney, Derek P. Cole. In it, Cole states, “As no provision of the California Vehicle Code authorized the county to impose this restriction, it is void and unenforceable.”
When investigating such complaints, the county requests weigh tickets to help them determine the number of trips a mine makes during periods in questions. “They provided the tickets for product, not spoils, transported from the quarry,” Klemann said.
In dispute is the language defining the “product spoils” of quarry productions. Cole cites Surface Mining and Reclamation Act definitions in his letter. “When the term ‘product’ is used … it is only reasonable to conclude that a ‘product’ truck means one carrying the actual commodity produced — in this case, hard rock. As I noted in my previous letter, a contrary reading would render the use of the word ‘product’ superfluous.” Cole continues to argue that mining waste known as overburden is not traditionally considered mining product. “If trucks hauling these materials are now included in the 20-trip truck limit, quarry operations may be rendered economically infeasible. The result would be considerable inverse-condemnation liability to the county for the taking in that situation.”
Cole goes on to say that because this condition, “cannot properly be interpreted to apply to trucks hauling mining waste or overburden, trucks carrying that material are not weighed prior to leaving the quarry. As no weigh tags are required, we accordingly cannot provide any such tags for your review.”
The county disagrees with Cole’s assessment. “Basically what they’re arguing is that limitations only apply to trucks hauling hard rocks,” said Klemann. “Our interpretation is (that it includes) product truck trips and non-product truck trips.”
Analyzing the quarry data is complex. “We knew the grading project for which the Ojai Quarry was providing. We contacted our grading inspector. We know how much these trucks can transport and we calculate how many trips would be required,” said Klemann. “We also know how many trips went to the Watershed Protection District on Jan. 16 and determined that they exceeded it.”
Klemann said the county also confirmed that the quarry exceeded the number and types of equipment allowed at Ojai Quarry properties.
“It’s just the latest of a sad history of noncompliance and chronic, grotesque violations,” said STTC Chairman Michael Shapiro. “What has been happening at the Ojai Quarry under Mr. Mosler’s management is unfortunate and, tragically, quite typical of what rock quarries are getting away with.” Shapiro said such practices are an “oversight of the Ventura Planning Division.”
That quarries continue to openly operate regardless of their conditional use permits continues to frustrate STTC. “Mr. Mosler hasn’t even tried to hide the violations of the CUP or what equipment he’s using,” said Shapiro. “That means to me he has adopted a culture of ‘I can do what I want and planning is not going to do a damn thing about it.’ If he really holds that point of view, I charge the Ventura County Planning Division and their utter, gutless and toothless authority for both monitoring, enforcing and penalizing violators, thereby giving Mr. Mosler carte blanche to do whatever he wants.”
While STTC provides the raw complaints necessary for enforcement efforts, the county must be more precise in its procedures, especially when legalities are in question.
Steve Bennett, 1st District supervisor, pointed out that there is a vast difference between seeing a truck driving through the valley and proving a quarry operations violation. “Whenever the county can document evidence that can stand up in court, they move forward,” said Bennett. “That’s what you see happening.”
“County counsel has been involved with this and all of our actions are following their advice,” said Klemann. “In this case, there are a number of options, but what we have been advocating all this time is Mr. Mosler needs to get down here. It’s making it very, very difficult for him to mine in compliance with his CUPs. However, this doesn’t let him off the hook about operating however he wants.”
Klemann added that to modify the CUP would mean the quarry representatives would need to appear before the Planning Commission and any appeals would go to the Board of Supervisors, affording opponents of the mining operation the opportunity to speak out in a public forum. While this has been avoided thus far, Klemann said Cole recently contacted his office about meeting to discuss such a modification.
But for the time being, efforts by the county to enforce Ojai Quarry’s CUP are on hold pending the outcome of legal appeals for the notices of violation regarding equipment, transport and January’s VCWPD activity, as well as complaints that the quarry exceeded its CUP while supplying materials to Sine Qua Non Winery last summer.
To add to the complexity of the situation, Casitas Municipal Water District issued a letter last month to the Army Corps of Engineers addressing allegations that Mosler Rock Products placed fill material into the North Fork of Matilija Creek, causing degradation of designated critical habitat by impacting water quality and in violation of the Clean Water Act.
“Casitas Municipal Water District is very concerned that the utility of our fish passage facility at the Robles Diversion is being undermined as a result of the unregulated activities at the Mosler Rock Quarry,” wrote CMWD board president in the letter. “Our board strongly urges the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to investigate the deliberate fill into the North Fork Matilija Creek as a potential violation of Section 404 of the Act, and further, to take the necessary regulatory or enforcement actions to implement mitigation measures to prevent or reduce impacts to migrating and spawning Southern California steelhead trout.”
Attached in the letter are photographs of the blockage and adult steelhead apparently attempting to navigate around it.
“I think Mr. Mosler should be shut down and his CUP revoked,” said Shapiro. “He’s lost all right to continue operating because of his numerous and egregious violations and for the negligence of causing a significant rock slide into the North Fork of the Matilija Creek which remains today.”
Klemann said there are time factors involved with the appeals process and he expects it to be several weeks before staff reports are complete, then a hearing date will be set and noticed for a Planning Division hearing.
The slow pace of enforcement only fuels speculation by STTC that governmental agencies weigh mining concerns over public concerns, but the county Planning Division continues its processing efforts as resources allow.
“Mines are supposed to keep everything contained,” Klemann said, adding that any possible violation from rocks or debris blocking the creek falls under county jurisdiction. “You must conduct mining operations pursuant to current conditions.”
Not forgotten by STTC is Ozena Valley Ranch Mine’s request for an extension on its CUP renewal, which the coalition called “irregular and inappropriate.” On June 9, the coalition sent a letter to Chris Stephens, director of the county‘s Resource Management Agency, saying STTC is “strongly opposing the county’s verbal extension of time granted to Alliance Ready Mix, Inc. to allow the Ozena Valley Ranch Mine until June 28, 2010 to complete its long-languishing application for renewal of a conditional use permit that expired four years ago. The coalition is also putting the county on notice that, if it grants any further extension past June 28, 2010, the coalition may seek injunctive and/or declaratory relief that the CUP is expired, and that the county is illegally permitting the continued operation of the mine.”
It is not just Ventura County that STTC is criticizing. “Caltrans seems to be 100 percent supportive of business and commerce even when such business and commerce are in violation of their CUPs and it seems to be the mind set to ignore citizen complaints about issues of safety and danger, turning Highway 33 into a massive, industrialized truck transit shipping zone,” said Shapiro. “There are many personnel in Caltrans that apparently look the other way. There’s a lack of due diligence, a lack of procedure when it comes to citizens filing complaints. I would like an investigation to find out why.”