A pristine wilderness area northeast of Fallbrook is at the center of a heated controversy, pitting local residents against a multibillion-dollar Fortune 1000 construction company. Five years ago Granite Construction announced its plan to develop a mile-long, 1000-foot-deep open-pit mine just north of the San Diego County line, near the town of Rainbow and west of the I-15. The proposed 155-acre project, named Liberty Quarry, would extract an estimated 270 million tons of aggregate materials over a period of up to 75 years.
Now, residents of Fallbrook, Rainbow, and Temecula are fighting to stop the quarry, which they say would endanger the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve, pollute their air, and subject them to the effects of the explosions required to excavate the rock — an estimated five blasts per week.
Granite Construction, however, maintains that the quarry would provide new jobs for the area and a cheap supply of aggregate, a construction material in high demand and short supply in Southern California.
On June 4, more than 500 residents attended a public hearing of the Riverside Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), an independent, state-mandated regulatory commission. The huge crowd spilled out into the lobby and nearby streets.
The purpose of the hearing was to decide whether to allow the City of Temecula to annex nearly 5000 acres of land, including the site of the proposed quarry. Approving the annexation would have stopped the mine in its tracks, as Temecula has a preexisting land-use plan that prohibits strip mining. However, after hearing nearly ten hours of testimony, the commission voted against annexation. The Riverside Board of Supervisors will now determine the quarry’s future, perhaps by the end of the year.
The quarry site is in a mountainous area southeast of the Santa Margarita River, the last fully protected, free-flowing river in Southern California. The Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve, which extends from Riverside County into San Diego County, comprises 4422 acres of the river valley. At the northeastern border of the reserve, the river begins its descent through the Temecula Gorge, whose cliffs at their steepest are over 230 feet high and near vertical. The river winds through rolling terrain, creating a patchwork of riparian zones shaded by willow, elderberry, and sycamore trees and dotted with coastal wood fern. The reserve is home to 184 species of animals, including golden eagles, bobcats, grey foxes, and California’s only native freshwater turtle, the western pond turtle. Managed by the San Diego State University Field Stations Program, the reserve provides protected sites for research on Southern California ecosystems.
Dr. Matt Rahn, director of SDSU’s Field Stations Program, says the property is an “amazing, one-of-a-kind location.” The reserve is home to endangered, rare, and endemic species and contains unique resources that are the last of their kind in the region. “It’s what Southern California looked like 100 years ago,” he says.
“The research conducted at the reserve is consequential to the nation and the state,” he continues, “answering important questions on climate change, fire ecology, air quality, water quality, and endangered species.”
How would the quarry affect the Santa Margarita River? Rahn says he is waiting to see the environmental impact report, scheduled for release within 30 days. “Given the large scale of the proposed quarry, we may experience impacts on water, air, seismology, habitat, species, light pollution, and noise pollution,” he says. “These impacts may in turn impact our research on the reserve.” Another concern, Rahn notes, is that the quarry site sits within Southern California’s inland-to-coastal wildlife linkage, a corridor between the coastal Santa Ana Mountains and the inland Palomar range.
Rahn says that the scope of the impact on the reserve’s programs is difficult to predict. “However, I can tell you that some long-term projects are hesitant to start work here, given the stigma that now looms over the reserve.”
Just north of the SDSU reserve is a 22-acre avocado grove owned by Fred Hayes. He is one of a number of avocado growers opposed to the quarry. Hayes worries that the quarry’s need for water would have a devastating effect on local growers. A report released by Granite indicates that the quarry would use up to 162,925,500 gallons per year.
“If, in fact, Liberty Quarry becomes a reality, at worst, it could virtually destroy the avocado industry in this area, and at best, it would have the probability of putting 30 or 40 producing groves out of business,” says Hayes. He points out that growers are already under a 30 percent cutback in water due to the statewide drought.
Hayes attended the commission hearing and, together with Ohannes Karaoghlanian, another local grower and a member of the California Avocado Commission, made a 15-minute presentation to the board. Hayes says that the public hearing was a “mere formality,” that the commissioners had already made up their minds.
“I was, to say the least, disappointed by the LAFCO ruling against the City of Temecula’s annexation — disappointed but not surprised,” says Hayes. “I had the sense that the hearing was merely to go through the motions when I saw the LAFCO staff had recommended against approval of annexation at least a week prior to the hearing,” he says, referring to the staff report released to the public one week earlier. “In my opinion, the LAFCO commission hearing was a farce.”
Wallace Tucker, chairman of the Fallbrook Land Conservancy, was also disappointed with the commission’s decision. “They had good reasons to accept the request for annexation — local control of land use, integrity of the countywide habitat plan — yet they punted the issue to the county,” he says.
Tucker believes that the proposed quarry would destroy the wildlife corridor and compromise a world-class research facility. “It also has the potential to adversely affect air quality for several miles around the quarry and the water quality in Rainbow Creek and the Santa Margarita River.” Rainbow Creek flows east and south of the quarry site.
Another local resident at the public hearing was Jerri Arganda, who lives in Rainbow. Arganda, founder of Rainbow Against the Quarry, a citizen action group, says her group is working hand in hand with a Temecula-based group, Save Our Southwest Hills, to stop the quarry.
Opposition to the quarry has grown to “enormous proportions over these last years,” says Arganda. “I would guess we have well over 35,000 signatures on petitions. We have around 400 businesses and nonprofit groups individually signed up to oppose the quarry, and we have nearly 100 medical doctors who have publicly opposed the quarry.” Arganda mentions that recently the San Diego Sierra Club, with 14,000 members, also publicly announced its opposition to the quarry project.
Arganda feels there is a lack of response from San Diego politicians, despite the public outcry and protests.
“In my opinion, Supervisor Bill Horn should be involved,” says Arganda, noting that she has met with Horn at his office and spoken with his land-use planner several times. “Even though the mine is just over the county line, the effects will be devastating to San Diego County roadways,” she says. “The exit and entrance to the mine is in north San Diego County, at Rainbow Valley Boulevard, and 1600 truck trips per day would enter the freeway here.”
Supervisor Horn, whose district covers nearly 1800 square miles of northern San Diego County, including Fallbrook and Rainbow, has not taken a position on the quarry. According to his chief of staff, Joan Wonsley, “There was no need to take a position, because he never had any influence on their jurisdiction.” However, Wonsley says, “Supervisor Horn asked San Diego County staff to make comments that will be included in the EIR about the traffic issues related to the access road. The quarry access road does fall in our jurisdiction.”
Temecula pediatrician Daniel Robbins is one of a group of 93 area physicians who oppose the quarry.
“It has been well established that gravel quarries pose health risks,” says Robbins, who is especially concerned about the spread of silica dust through strong winds in the area.
“Microcrystalline silica is produced in the mining process,” says Robbins. “It is a particle small enough to enter the smallest part of our lungs, the alveoli, where oxygen is exchanged. They create inflammation in these air sacs, and over time, depending on the amount of exposure, lung damage can result.”
As a pediatrician, Robbins says he is worried about the effects on his patients. “I am concerned about the premature babies I care for who have underdeveloped lungs,” he says. “They would be especially at risk.”
Robbins notes that at least ten schools in south Temecula are close to the mine site. “These children will be outside playing during blasting times and while the wind is blowing,” he says.
Attendees at the commission hearing also included representatives of Granite Construction and supporters of the quarry project.
Granite Construction was pleased with the outcome of the hearing. “This is a big win for economic stimulus, local jobs, lower construction costs, improved traffic conditions, and better air quality,” says Karie Reuther, director of community relations for the company.
“There is a lot of support in the area for the proposed Liberty Quarry, based on the extensive outreach we have conducted in the last two to three years,” Reuther says, noting that the company has offered tours of similar facilities in Indio, held town hall meetings, and provided technical information on its website.
According to Reuther, Liberty Quarry would create 100 new local jobs and provide $2.2 million a year in new revenue to Riverside County. Air quality would be improved, she explains, by having aggregate locally available rather than hauled in from distant locations.
Reuther feels that the opposition to the project “stems from a lack of understanding or a failure to even bother with the facts.” She says that all of the relevant issues that have been raised by the community and regional agencies will be examined.
“These issues are being studied in extensive detail, and mitigation measures will be proposed to minimize any impacts, but the opposition is making claims that are not substantiated by scientific fact or independent studies,” she says.
Legal battles over quarry sites are not uncommon. According to Reuther, Rosemary’s Mountain Quarry in Fallbrook took 23 years to permit.
Fallbrook resident Richard Brady, a Liberty Quarry supporter, has worked in the sand and gravel business for many years. Brady feels that San Diego County’s construction industry needs the quarry. “San Diego County, as well as Southern California, has a serious shortage of aggregate,” he says.
Temecula resident Vince Davis also supports the quarry. He joined a pro-quarry advocacy group, Friends of the Liberty Quarry, about a year ago. Davis says he had been approached to sign a stop-the-quarry petition outside a grocery store two years ago and wanted to look into the issue.
“I wanted to do my own homework, so I went to an open house put on by Granite Construction. They brought in a team of experts to answer questions about the quarry. They had the dust guy, the sound guy, the traffic-study guy, the biologist — it wasn’t a lecture but a chance to come and get your questions answered,” says Davis.
Davis believes that the construction company has addressed all the potential problems. “Let’s take some of the issues — noise and silica dust, for example. All of these are legitimate issues, real issues. My question was, have they found a way to solve the problem?” says Davis. “The people on the opposite side of the issue don’t realize that with all of the new technology, all of the problems with dust and noise are solved.”
As to the benefits of the quarry, Davis responds, “The benefits to me personally, probably nothing, but the benefits to the community would be great. We need aggregate to make concrete, and San Diego has a shortage of it. Right now, they’re importing it from Corona and beyond. The quarry would be a lot closer to the target market,” he says. “When you build Petco Park, for example, you need a ton of construction materials. Downtown San Diego needs new asphalt for its streets. Having a closer source of these materials is going to save costs.”
Responding to quarry protesters, Davis says, “It won’t be a scar that is the eyesore people worry about. None of the quarry will be directly visible from the surrounding area, because of the hillsides,” he adds. “The only way you would know there’s a hole in the ground would be to fly over the area with a helicopter.”
Davis thinks that there is no other place they could put the quarry. “If they move the location, there would still be protests but with new names and new faces.”
O.B. Johnson, chairman of the Friends of Liberty Quarry, says that support for the quarry continues to grow weekly. “Over 1000 individuals have submitted Friends of Liberty Quarry registration cards,” he says.
According to Johnson, “As many take advantage of the tours of the Indio quarry and take the time to delve into the facts as to how the quarry will impact our area, they become enthusiastic supporters.”
In the upcoming months, Granite will be holding informational meetings at various locations to educate the public about the benefits of having a quarry in the area.
“However,” says Johnson, “I know that no manner of education or information will convince our hard-core opponents that a quarry is needed.”