Fresno County granted a three-year extension for CEMEX to continue mining the San Joaquin River. Source: Google Maps

What's at stake?

Fresno wants CEMEX to voluntarily help pay for city road maintenance.

The City of Fresno is preparing a lawsuit against Fresno County over its decision earlier this week to extend a gravel mining permit on the city’s northern outskirts, Fresnoland has confirmed.

According to two City Hall sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Fresno City Council on Thursday directed City Attorney Andrew Janz to prepare a lawsuit against Fresno County over its decision to extend a gravel mining permit owned by CEMEX, a multinational mining company based in Mexico.

However, city leaders hope to negotiate with CEMEX officials in the coming days. If the city gets CEMEX to pitch in funding for local road maintenance voluntarily, the lawsuit could be avoided altogether.

If not, the council could vote to sue as soon as Aug. 10, both sources confirmed to Fresnoland.

News of the potential lawsuit comes just days after the Fresno County Board of Supervisors granted a three-year extension to the controversial century-old mining claim along the San Joaquin River, just north of Fresno.

CEMEX lawyer says City of Fresno ‘barking up the wrong tree’

The city argues that the county is legally obligated to conduct a new analysis on the gravel mine’s environmental impacts.

The 100-year-old operation hasn’t undertaken an environmental review since the late 1980s.

Primarily, city officials say they can’t wait any longer for CEMEX to help pay for maintenance on the city streets the company uses to haul aggregate to construction sites across Fresno and Madera counties.

A CEMEX lawyer told Fresno County earlier this week that the city’s demand for a new environmental review of a longstanding operation was baseless.

“We think the city has it 100% wrong,” CEMEX attorney Patrick Mitchell told the Supervisors. “They’re barking up the wrong tree.”

Mitchell said no new analysis on the mine’s environmental impacts was needed because the county only considered an extension of an existing mining permit, not an expansion.

Additionally, the supervisors noted that, without the extension, CEMEX would be forced to close down its century-old operation before the end of July, leaving around 100 employees without work.

However, the mine is expected to run out of gravel to extract within a few years. 

Tuesday’s vote was of key importance, Supervisor Steve Brandau said, because it gives CEMEX enough time to develop a plan to mine the San Joaquin River for another century.

Brandau said the extension would allow CEMEX to complete the application for an unprecedented 600-foot-deep open-pit blast mine just outside Fresno.

“I’m going to be able to support an extension today to CEMEX so that they can get to the EIR (for the blast mine),” Brandau said.

Fresno wants CEMEX to help pay for city road maintenance

City officials who spoke with Fresnoland were careful to note that, despite the looming lawsuit, they support CEMEX operations in Fresno County.

However, Councilmember Garry Bredefeld said the city couldn’t wait any longer for CEMEX to help maintain the city streets it uses to haul gravel out of the river.

Over the last four decades, CEMEX has more than doubled its truck trips along Friant Road, from 100,000 in 1986 to 250,000 this year, according to the city of Fresno. Each of these truck trips can cause as much damage as 10,000 cars.

All the city wants, Bredefeld said in an interview Wednesday, is to have CEMEX provide mitigation funding to offset wear and tear on city roads.

“I want CEMEX to continue their operations. I just want to make sure that these impacts are finally dealt with,” Bredefeld said. “The county has not done its job to make sure those road impacts are dealt with. And we at the city will not ignore those impacts.”

Additionally, Bredefeld criticized comments made Tuesday by Supervisor Nathan Magsig.

Magsig argued that much of the traffic on Friant Road wasn’t from CEMEX but instead from the city of Fresno’s suburban developments.

Bredefeld called Magsig’s comments “a bunch of crap.”

“He’s just rationalizing their inaction, their ineptitude as a Board of Supervisors in ignoring this,” Bredefeld said. “They get donations from CEMEX, so they’re incentivized to ignore it. His attempt to rationalize their do-nothing attitude at the Board of Supervisors is disgraceful.”

All five supervisors have each received at least $2,500 in donations from CEMEX-related entities since 2019, according to county campaign disclosure forms. Supervisor Sal Quintero has received the most since 2019 – $4,500.

Fresno County supervisor says CEMEX should compensate city

In an interview with Fresnoland on Wednesday, Magsig appeared to brush off Bredefeld’s criticism.

Magsig said he also wants CEMEX to compensate the city but said that discussion should happen later: after the multinational company completes its proposal to blast open a 600-foot crater just north of Fresno and expand its mining operations.

“I think there’ll be some opportunity to look at ways to mitigate future impact through that environmental review (for the blast mine) that’s being processed,” Magsig told Fresnoland.

Currently, the CEMEX mine provides about 28% of the gravel for real estate developers in the Fresno area, according to company documents.

If the plant closes down, the remaining gravel mines for the Fresno area would be Vulcan’s Sanger plant and Calaveras’ Kings River plant.

A decade ago, CEMEX tried to expand, but Fresno County officials said ‘no’

Over the last decade, as the output from CEMEX’s mining claims in Fresno and Lemon Cove dwindled, the multinational company has tried and failed to use blast mining to jump-start another gravel boom.

In 2012, the company proposed to blow up Jesse Morrow Mountain, a sacred site for the Choinumni tribe of Yokut Native Americans near Sanger.

A CEMEX spokesman advocated for blowing up the mountain at the time because the mountain wasn’t generating any economic activity otherwise.

CEMEX’s blast mine application was denied by the county planning commissioners following public outcry in a razor-thin 4-3 vote.

The hope for a blast mine on the outskirts of Fresno was renewed in 2019 when CEMEX said it was considering an open-pit blueprint near Lost Lake Park on Friant Road.

The blast mine would end up doubling the annual output of CEMEX’s operations, according to official documents. Over 200 million tons of gravel could be mined over the next century using the blast pit.

A 200-ft-deep open-pit gravel mine pit in Irwindale, California. CEMEX’s proposed San Joaquin pit would be three times as deep. Source: Center for Land Use Interpretation

However, the company’s plans for the blast mine have fallen off the rails since 2019.

Pacheco criticizes CEMEX over slow environmental review

The environmental review for the blast mine was expected in the summer of 2021, according to county documents. Company officials have blamed at least part of the delay on the coronavirus pandemic.

At the appeal hearing on Tuesday, Supervisor Brian Pacheco said CEMEX needed to hurry up with the blast mine proposal.

“I think if you really want to hold them to the fire, we’d better give them a two-year extension,” Pacheco said. “They’re hiring the people to get this done, so they need to put a little heat on these people.”

Mitchell, the CEMEX attorney, said the initial environmental review for the blast pit could be publicly available within the next year.

The blast mine could cause a litany of environmental impacts, which CEMEX will attempt to analyze in the coming months. These include air pollution, ground instability along the San Joaquin, water quality impacts, noise and vibration from blasting, and increased truck traffic along Friant Road.

This California city took on CEMEX in 2017

This week’s criticism from the City of Fresno is hardly the first time CEMEX has faced pushback from communities.

In 2017, a small city in Monterey Bay threatened to declare a century-old CEMEX sand mine a public nuisance. They also asked the California Coastal Commission to investigate the company.

Soon after, the multinational company reached an agreement with the state Coastal Commission. They agreed to close the 100-year-old sand mine and turn it into a public park complete with trails.

Sharon Weaver, executive director of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, said a similar problem is at play with the potential blast mine on the San Joaquin.

Weaver said the blast mine “absolutely” presents a problem for the San Joaquin River Restoration Program.

“There’s so many different impacts and different potential problems that can happen when you are blasting hard rock rather than just digging sand and gravel,” she said.

Weaver opposes any blast mine proposal on the San Joaquin River.

“We have taken enough from the San Joaquin River,” Weaver said. “When are we going to start giving back to the river instead?”

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Gregory Weaver is a staff writer for Fresnoland who covers the environment, air quality, and development.

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