Between a rock mine and a hard place

Appeal denied in truck violation case.

By Bill Lascher 02/01/2008

As snowfall cut off northern Ventura County from the rest of Southern California, concerns about sand and gravel mines in the area re-emerged in the Ojai Valley.

After months of quiet, a flurry of moves on the county level and an upcoming slate of hearings suggest that a protracted dispute centered on truck traffic carrying loads of rock through Ojai to concrete and asphalt producers in Oxnard and Ventura could erupt between the Stop the Trucks! Coalition and the Ozena Valley Ranch Mine, which wants to expand its mining operations. Both sides claim they have the economic and environmental interests of the Ojai Valley, Ventura County, and the broader region in mind.

The most recent development came with County planners' refusal to hear an appeal by Ozena's owners of a violation of existing conditional use permits. The violation follows a complaint by resident John Broesamle that he observed trucks driving through Ojai between work sites and the mine during hours such traffic was prohibited from Highway 33.

In some ways, the dispute resembles a 1993 fight by Ojai residents to stop Waste Management's plans to build a landfill in nearby Weldon Canyon. Ojai residents, environmentalists, city council members, business owners and education officials form the peculiar alliance of mine opponents; while the mine itself is run by a family on a remote compound in the Lockwood Valley that also features barley and carrot fields, cattle grazing, aquaculture and other rural activities. Backers of the mine insist that the Virgilio family serves the construction needs of western Ventura County with a resource that concrete and gravel processors would simply purchase from larger operations elsewhere, while opponents claim that approving the mine would set a precedent for other mining operations in the area and open the scenic Highway 33 corridor and the Los Padres National Forest to industrialization.

"What we're opposed to is turning Route 33 and highway 150 into a de facto trucking route," said Michael Shapiro, the new chair of the Stop the Trucks! Coalition

"We're opposed to having this town, which is dependent on a tourist economy, education, and the arts, inject industrialization. "It completely obscures and takes away from the heart and soul of what the town is about."

On the other hand consultants hired by Ozena insist that the proposed modifications wouldn't change the total number of truck trips allowed through Ojai, and that limiting the current number would harm many more areas than the Ojai Valley.

John Hecht, the president and principal engineer of Ventura-based West Coast Environmental said Ozena is one of the only locations where rock aggregate can be mined and sold to Ventura County buyers. Any trucks turned away at Ozena would continue 16 miles to another mine, known as GPS, or travel to Palmdale instead of along Highway 33.

The additional mileage to Palmdale and back, Hecht said, would be accompanied by 530 additional pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per truck, and 530 tons of extra emissions per year. Trucks traveling to Palmdale instead of Ojai to purchase aggregate would have to pass through areas such as Santa Clarita, Fillmore and Santa Paula to get to concrete and asphalt processors in Oxnard and Ventura.

"There's an environmental justice issue to it," Hecht said. "I understand all the concerns of the people in Ojai, but you know, there are a lot of other communities that get affected."

Hecht said keeping rock production in Ventura County is a good thing.

"They're saving truck miles, they're saving air emissions, they're saving all of these things," he said. "So, the engineer in me, the environmental scientist in me says this is a great project."

County planners do not monitor truck traffic but instead respond to complaints from citizens on a case by case basis. The recent violation resulted from such a complaint. No fine or punishment was issued for the violation, though. Instead, Ozena was told not to violate the law in the future.

Shapiro and other opponents worry that lax enforcement against Ozena could mean GPS and other mine operators would also run trucks down Highway 33, which would overwhelm the Ojai Valley. He said that a regional solution addressing the demand for construction materials should be worked out between officials in Ventura, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo in such a way that no one community takes the environmental brunt.

Ojai, he added, has a fragile airshed. In a crucial study used in the fight against Weldon Canyon, a company known as Environ convinced the Ventura County Board of Supervisors that harmful emissions get trapped in the Ojai Valley's air.

"That cost [of forcing trucks to take an alternate route via Interstate 5] is far, far less in real human terms than the cost of the damage that [truck traffic] is going to do to Ojai," he said. "In looking at the whole political landscape I would like to think that people are finally looking at the bigger picture to save a town's way of life."

If you live in northern Ventura County the Reporter wants to hear from you. We're looking for tips, letters, and resources about life north of the urbanized portions of Ventura County. Whether you live in the Rose Valley or Frazier Park, whether you hike the mountains behind Ojai or those beyond Fillmore, we want to hear from you. Please contact editor@vcreporter.com or call 648-2244 x202 with more information.

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