By Lauren Westmoreland
The Portola City Council held its regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday, Jan. 13, which included whether to weigh in on a proposed mine expansion. With over 50 individuals virtually present during the three-hour Zoom meeting, council members moved through the agenda briskly.
City Council Communications
Councilmember Stan Peiler noted that he would be attending an upcoming webinar training, and Councilmember Tom Cooley briefly reported in his attendance and participation in several subcommittee meetings with the fire study group.
Mayor Pro Tem Pat Morton reported on the good work of the volunteers with the Eastern Plumas Angel Program (EPAP), saying, “We had Christmas for 192 kids in 2020.”
Mayor Bill Powers noted his recent communications with Plumas National Forest Supervisor Chris Carlton regarding issues pertaining to recreation around Lake Davis.
Staff Communications and Fire Chief Report
Eastern Plumas Rural Fire Protection District answered a total of 16 calls in December in Portola: 11 medical calls, two fire alarms, one trash fire, one bonfire check, and one smoke check. Chief Bob Frank also noted that an article had been published in the Sierra Booster covering the department assisting Santa in delivering bikes and Christmas cheer to eight lucky children.
City Finance Officer Susan Scarlett said the audit was complete as of that morning, and it would be on the agenda soon.
Julie Ruiz of the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District (NSAQMD) briefly noted that the air quality had been terrible in the past few days, with a high-pressure weather system affecting the inversion and pollution issues.
City Manager Report
City Manager Lauren Knox reported that the front-counter remodel at City Hall was progressing, with a goal toward making it more user friendly.
Knox also noted that an updated schedule for the Covid-19 vaccination was available from Plumas County Public Health, and informed council members that updates regarding vaccine availability for city staff would likely be available by Jan. 18. “The vaccination schedule really depends on the number of vaccines that they receive,” Knox added.
“We’re also working on the fire transition piece with the South Side Fire Hall, getting it more functional,” Knox announced. “It is really exciting to see the fire hall come back to life a bit.” Knox went on to note that there would likely be a budget amendment for some repairs and some appliances, tables and chairs that would be discussed further at the meeting of City Hall on Wednesday, January 27.
Knox also informed council members that she sent out information for an upcoming Protecting Your City from Wildfire web conference to be held Feb. 2-3.
The final item on Knox’s report was the Renegade Light Parade, which went over extremely well. “I’ve had people asking if we would consider doing that parade every year,” Knox said. “The parade participants enjoyed putting a lot into it and they got a lot out of it as well.”
Cal-OSHA has new pandemic related requirements, with all city staff and council members (or anyone visiting City Hall) now being required to sign in and take their temperature at the door before entrance.
Annually the Council reviews appointments to council committees, boards and commissions. Traditionally, following an election and reorganization of the Council, the Mayor makes appointments to vacancies at the first meeting in January.
Only one change was made, with Mayor Bill Powers taking the position that Councilmember Phil Oels had formerly held on the Emergency Services Policy Committee.
The council decided to continue the Fire Wise Ad Hoc Committee, with fire wise activities still ongoing within the City of Portola and its sphere of influence. This committee meets intermittently and was created Oct. 11, 2017 to assist the staff in overcoming obstacles facing the Portola Volunteer Fire Department and to make recommendations to staff and the Council regarding the Fire Department.
Draft General Plan 2045- Public Participation Process
City contract planner Karen Downs provided a brief background on the general plan, noting that every city in California is required to have one, which is a blueprint for growth and development that lays out specific strategies for land use, mobility, housing, open space, conservation, noise, and safety.
The general plan reflects the community’s values and directs the city’s day-to-day decisions, plans and priorities. About every 20 years it’s revised to become more meaningful and relevant based on the current state of the city, with an eye toward the future.
The State of California has updated the General Plan Guidelines, or GPG. The GPG sets out each statutory requirement in detail and provides recommended policy language. Downs explained, “The GPG is a resource to help the City accomplish its priorities and vision while meeting larger state goals, increasing community collaboration, and potentially improving competitiveness for funding opportunities.”
A public community meeting was held on April 10, 2019 to discuss the City’s strengths, challenges, and goals, looking toward the future. After a discussion of housing, safety, and general growth in the City, it was agreed that the themes of the general plan (technology, recreation, and tourism) remain critical issues in Portola.
The importance of community activities, facade improvement, improved alleyways, emphasis on the railroad museum and downtown activities, improved signage to downtown attractions, increased tourism, and improved businesses are proposed focus of the draft general plan.
On Dec. 9, 2020, the City Council directed city staff to develop a public participation and review schedule for each element of the general plan. The proposed schedule includes weekly “brown bag” virtual workshops open to the public to review each element of the plan, periodic community development committee meetings to update the committee on each element, and updates to the council at regular City Council meetings to take public comment between February and April 2021.
Environmental review and any needed agency contact are scheduled between February and May, followed by a planned revision of the GP based on environmental review, public comment, and City Council feedback. All in the community are highly encouraged to engage and participate in this process. Council would then review the final draft of the environmental document and 2045 General Plan by June 2021. All members approved the proposed schedule by roll call vote and moved to the next order of business.
Comment Letter for a Plumas County Special Use Permit Application
The Plumas County Department of Planning and Building Services issued a notice in November 2020 that an application for the use and expansion of an existing permitted aggregate mine and associated portable asphalt batch plant had been received.
The Portola Aggregates proposal is to mine 33,800,000 cubic yards of aggregate and sand on property located at 77413 Meadow Way, Portola. The mining operation is proposed to run from 2022 through 2072.
City Manager Lauren Knox clarified at this point that although the project is not within Portola city limits, it is within the city’s Sphere of Influence and the city has an opportunity to comment on the project. “This is not an application the city has any authority over regards approval or denial,” Knox stated.
Because the project is not within city limits, the city council does not have any decision-making authority on the application itself. Rather, Plumas County is coordinating with the city on this proposed project because it is within the city’s Sphere of Influence.
“At this time, Plumas County has asked if the City of Portola has any suggestions as to how the project might be modified to reduce or avoid any significant effects or recommendations regarding approval or conditions of approval on this project,” she said.
Plumas County is currently reviewing the application to determine if additional information is needed and is completing its environmental review in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
The city received the Portola Aggregates Development Permit Application and Mining and Reclamation Plan, and digital copies of the full materials are available; however, the city is not providing hard copies because they are more than 400 pages in total. “City staff has prepared a preliminary draft comment letter to Plumas County, requesting additional information, clarification and outlining proposed discussion items,” Knox said.
Background and application review
City contract planner Downs reviewed the application process leading up to the memo being sent to the City of Portola on Dec.15. Downs shared project materials including parcel maps delineating the city limits and parcels nearby.
Downs focused on the site of the proposal, which is adjacent to the site of the Portola landfill. “The application states under section 4.1 in the Excavation and Mining plan that the project site encompasses approximately 715 acres, of which approximately 256 acres will be affected by mining and processing activities,” Downs read to the room. “The remaining acres will serve as setback areas and buffers from surrounding properties and support habitat for wildlife.”
There is a 50-year project timeframe, and the project itself states that mining operations will use a variety of types of equipment and machinery onsite, such as water trucks, front end loaders to feed the crusher and diesel-powered load trucks, excavators, an asphalt plant, lime mix plant and more, found in section 4.3.5 of the application.
Processing plant operations would include the stockpiling of aggregate, loading of raw aggregate into conveyor chutes, washing the aggregate, sorting, and crushing the aggregate to market specifications, and placement into stockpiles or onto hauling trucks for delivery.
According to the application, in general, the proposed mining operations would normally occur “between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday, with occasional need to operate during nighttime hours in periods of peak demand. Some contracts, such as Caltrans, require nighttime paving that would take place approximately five weeks per year. During those times, the plant would operate 24 hours per day.” Power is anticipated to be supplied by PSREC, with periodic use of generators.
Approximately 50,000 gallons of water per day would be used for washing the aggregate and for dust suppression at maximum production. The number of operating days per year will vary.
Wash water will be recycled from the wash-water pond. Onsite water will be supplied by a well. Upon closure of the site, the well will be abandoned in accordance with California state standards.
“Overall, the letter states that additional information is needed in order to make a determination based on CEQA review and environmental impacts, and we feel that an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) would be appropriate to analyze the potential impacts from the proposed project,” Downs said. The draft letter states in part, “In requesting the preparation of an EIR, the city is not at this time providing an opinion regarding approval of the project or proposed mitigation measures.
Rather the City is concerned about the environmental impacts as they may affect the City of Portola and its residents. An EIR would identify possible project alternatives; identify and evaluate impacts, including identifying significant and/or cumulative impacts, for the proposed project and project alternatives; and identify necessary mitigation measures if the project or a project alternative should be approved. Also, the City is aware of the potential positive economic impact the mine could have on the local economy.
The city wants more information on aesthetics, air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, biological resources, geology/soils, hydrology and water quality, noise, and transportation/traffic.
Comments from city attorney
City Attorney Steve Gross gave a brief overview as to the scope of the proposed project, saying, “In preparing the draft, we did so trying to identify key areas and issues. I wanted to point out a few additional items that I propose might be incorporated into the draft letter if council so chooses to send it.”
Gross then explained the first area of transportation and processing operations appear to be significant. “They’re talking about up to 700 truck round trips as the max and 32 as the average. That’s only the truck trips and doesn’t include trips by employees, material suppliers, suppliers of fuels, trash collection, portable toilet servicing, etc. Also, the peak activity is presented up to 24 hours a day, up to five weeks a year, which is a little less than ten percent of the year,” he said.
Gross also noted that at the peak hours of operation that averages a trip every other minute, causing a spike in associated traffic, as well as the noise, light emissions and other activities associated with the operation potentially becoming very significant.
“That would increase truck traffic in that part of Highway 70 by three and a half times and overall traffic by about 20 percent,” Gross explained further. Gross went on to express potential areas to explore further, including the details of facilities operations and the likelihood of nearby residences to be severely impacted by dust and noise, regardless of any attempt at mitigating factors. It was noted also that the specific measures to protect the public as stated need to be identified.
With respect to reclamation activities, the reclamation plan recognizes that under the SMARA, or Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1975 Section 2774 (c), local lead agencies are required to submit reclamation plans and plan amendments to the Director of the Department of Conservation for review prior to approval.
“Plumas County as the lead agency has the discretion to require financial assurances in the amount required for reclamation, and we might consider asking to see the financial assurances and estimated reclamation cost provided by the applicant to the county,” Gross noted.
Finally, Gross added, if the council ultimately agreed to require additional information, the best option would be an Environmental Impact Report, which is the highest level of environmental review in California.
City Manager Lauren Knox then opened public comment by reading more than 40 comments sent into the city via email into record, beginning with a petition against the pit mine operation.Knox read the petition itself first, as it had been sent in by multiple individuals with the signatures of various concerned citizens attached.
The petition states in part, “We are opposed to the creation of an “aggregate and sand” mine extracting 33.8 million cubic yards of materials on APNs 025-050-055 and 025-100-036 in Plumas County.
“Aggregate and sand mine” is how the notice of application from the Plumas County Planning & Building Service reads; however, the actual permit asks for far more than just sand and aggregate extraction.
It requests permission to build an asphalt plant, a lime plant, and a rock crushing plant along with on-site diesel storage for 10,000 gallons of fuel and 55-gallon drums of hydraulic and transmission fluids. The miners are requesting permission to use 50,000 gallons of water per day. A large sediment pond (450’) for particulates and potential toxins is also included…”
The petition goes on to state that the main concerns community members have include well water contamination, aquifer depletion with subsequent loss of residential wells, creeks, springs, and wetlands; intolerable noise pollution from heavy machinery; damaging citizens’ mental, physical, and emotional health; and air quality degradation from a variety of factors such as explosive particulate and hot asphalt generated toxins, as well as lime kiln dust.
This petition emailed to Knox by resident Warren Simison also included the signatures of 145 other people, with more than 65 residents expressing vehement rejection of the mining proposal and many referencing the aforementioned proposal and SaveEasternPlumas.com.
Many concerned citizens mentioned the reasons that they reside in the area, including the rural peaceful atmosphere, quiet, and healthy environment.
Letters against the proposal also included a letter from the Grizzly Ranch Conservancy Board of Directors strenuously opposing the permit application, stating that the project would have significant impacts to natural resources and habitat within and around the Grizzly Ranch Subdivision.
More than three property owners sent in letters noting that they had planned to either move into the area or complete projects on homes in the Grizzly Ranch area but w0uld not relocate to the area should this proposal move forward.
This was followed by a period of public comment from those who wished to speak on the Zoom call, with 14 raising serious concerns regarding the proposed project.
Those who spoke included local Josh Hart, who noted his alarm at the “scale and sheer arrogance” of the proposal, raising concerns around the environmental hazards attached to such a mining proposal, with lasting negative effects on the community.
Mark Roberts, president of the Grizzly Ranch Homeowners Association, said 302 property owners were strongly opposed to the project, citing several concerns that included the fact that mine would affect real estate values in addition to the concerns for the health of individuals within the community.
“I also want to say this,” Roberts noted. “A mine doesn’t die at the end of 50 years. It dies when they’ve stripped all of the resources that they possibly can.”
Resident Valari Simison voiced her extreme alarm around the project, which would be mere feet from her back door. She and many others, also thanked the City of Portola for their time and efforts to arrange the meeting for all to have a chance to voice an opinion on a matter of such great consequence to residents.
After all had a chance to voice their concerns, Perry Thompson, president of Hat Creek Construction and Materials and agent of TLT Enterprises, spoke briefly to the room, thanking the city and all for their input and comments on the proposal his company had put forth.
“I hear you,” Thompson said. “I want you to know that I’m hearing what you guys are saying — you’re making a lot of very good points.” Thompson went on to state that from the beginning of this process, what the company is attempting to do is fulfill proposed work, from Portola toward Quincy in the next 10-20 years.
“We operate several quarries, with one near Susanville and one in Modoc County,” Thompson said. “We work primarily in Northeastern California, and community is one of our biggest core values, believe it or not. I want people to understand that we live and work in the communities that we serve, and don’t have a 49-year reputation from raping and pillaging communities — we don’t operate that way.”
Thompson said there was a need for a mining operation of this type, with asphalt currently coming in from Reno, Nevada for most needs in Plumas County.
“We’ve probably overstated the size of the project, and may need to reanalyze our plan,” Thompson said. “This is just the beginning stages of this project proposal.” He encouraged all concerned to send comments to the Board of Supervisors of Plumas County, so that the project can then move to the potential next step.
“We are prepared to go with an EIR if that is what serves this community the best,” Thompson said. “What we don’t know is what is going to happen in the community — whether this is going to be the next Bend, Oregon or stay a small, rural community.”
Thompson went on to encourage people to take a “common sense look” at the need and noted that while there are some larger projects that may arise, there are also years where the gravel pits sit idle. “In the last 20 years, our company has done less than five projects at night,” Thompson added as he clarified some areas of the application. “We only work at night when it’s contractually required.”
Thompson noted that the meeting was not the proper forum for him to answer everyone’s questions and concerns, but invited any concerns or questions be directed to his email address at [email protected].
“We want to coexist and be good neighbors, that’s our goal. I know projects like this can sound scary,” Thompson said. “I just ask that everyone give the process a chance and let us start with the EIR. Maybe we can figure out a way make this more of a neutral project, not a negative project.”
Community members went on to ask a few further questions of Thompson regarding whether he would want to live next to one of his plants, and concerns around the strict compliance levels needed to maintain acceptable drinking water at Grizzly Ranch CSD. Questions were also raised about the financial benefit to the county or city, and whether the Sierra Club had been involved at any point in time thus far.
Resident Dave Valle thanked Thompson for speaking and urged the City of Portola to demand a CEQA report from the county, saying, “Quincy cannot relate, and I question whether they will have the passion to follow this through. This will have repercussions that extend miles — I use aggregate myself, but a residential area is not the place to extract these things.”
After some further comment, members of city council gave brief comment, with all in substantial agreement with the proposed draft letter.
Council member Cooley suggested all public comment be included in the draft letter to the county, to assure that the Board of Supervisors gets a “full sense of the community’ concerns regarding the project.”
Council member Oels stated that Dave Valle had made a good point in the strong suggestion for the city to demand an EIR and added that he shared many concerns with all who has spoken that evening.
Mayor Pro Tem Morton stated that she was inclined to be opposed to the proposal but felt that the city should request further information before continuing any further.
Mayor Bill Powers noted that the format of the draft letter looked good, but that staff might need to add a section to congregate areas of most concern.“There are a lot of really valid questions about how this would affect water quality and discharge,” Powers said. “I also believe that we need an updated well survey for the project area, as the current survey states that there is only one water well, abandoned, found near the project area, when I know for a fact that is highly erroneous.”
Councilmember Oels also noted that decomposed granite was very permeable, and that could lead to an oil leak into the ground water. “We had a problem with that at the dump if I remember correctly,” Oels said.
At this point it was noted that the general consensus would be to request additional information in the form of CEQA and/or EIR, as well as including all public comment directly to the county by Friday, Jan. 15 by unanimous roll call vote.