CEMEX, the parent company based in Mexico that operates the Stillwell Mine north of Highway 198 and Lomitas Drive in Lemon Cove is in a fight over water with a half dozen of its neighbors. The dispute is based on complaints filed on behalf of several local property owners who are within a few hundred feet of the sand and gravel operation in the aquifer of the St. Johns/Kaweah River just west of where the rivers exit the Lake Kaweah basin.
On Wednesday, Dec. 10, members of the Tulare County Planning Commission heard three hours of public testimony outlining some of the impacts of the mining even though CEMEX has temporarily halted operations at the site.
At stake is the CEMEX permit to continue surface mining of sand and gravel that is scheduled to resume soon now that the region’s economy is rebounding. Four residents and two longtime farmers in the area testified at the December 10 hearing that the company had not lived up to the permit conditions that mandated they pump groundwater into a ditch that recharged nearby wells, all of which have gone dry or have been severely impacted since the company quit pumping the water in September 2013.
Several of the neighbors testified that the dry wells have caused hardships and necessitated the expense of thousands of dollars to obtain water from alternate sources. A CEMEX attorney and spokesperson, Pat Mitchell of Roseville, testified that the shallow 15-feet-deep wells located nearby are simply casualties of the three-year drought.
The mining company proposed in May 2014 to provide a specified share of the cost to dig the affected wells to greater depths, or one well to serve the group, without accepting responsibility for causing the problem. The coalition of neighbors, who have also hired an attorney to represent their interests, said the CEMEX proposal is not enough and they need to pay more or cease to operate.
The quarry created by the mining at the site has constantly contained standing water throughout the period, and that’s the groundwater, neighbors maintain, that is no longer recharging their wells. The company recently began to re-pump water into the recharge ditch but the plaintiffs maintain that it is too little too late and the wells and the pumps are damaged.
Tom Cairns, who farms citrus on an adjacent property to the site and also operates a Lemon Cove rock quarry, said the mining has definitely had an impact on the water table. The sand and gravel extracted from the site, according to EIR mining data, is among the best quality material available in Tulare County.
The Planning Commission voted to continue the public hearing to Wednesday, Feb. 25, in order for county staff, the company, and the coalition of neighbors to reach a consensus on how the dispute can be settled. The Planning Commission is expected to vote following that hearing on whether to modify or revoke the existing permit.