March 3, 2011
By Therese Dunphy
It’s a story that regularly unfolds in communities around the United States: the big bad mining company approaches the local government body seeking a permit. Outraged neighbors cry out about the harmful environmental impacts of big business. Flyers are distributed door to door. The community is warned about the harmful health effects of noise and dust. Citizens jam the corridors of city hall demanding that their elected representatives send the evil doers packing. In this particular case, a neighboring community’s ecologically minded city mayor rode her bike to city hall to drop off hundreds of protest letters.
You know how the story ends, right? But here’s the thing. This story has a twist. Despite numerous hurdles during the company’s effort to swap which 80 acres of its 270-acre property were to be mined, residents supported the company’s mine plan.
No, that’s not a misprint. On Jan. 25, a special election with a single ballot issue — Measure A — passed by more than a 2-1 margin. The miracle transpired in Azusa, Calif., where Vulcan Materials Co.’s year-and-a-half-long permitting process culminated in a vote of the people.
Six months earlier, the Azusa City Council approved the operator’s request in a 4-1 vote. An anti-mining group, Azusans Against Mining Expansion, subsequently gathered the necessary signatures to place a referendum item on a special election ballot. The anti-mining faction also mobilized three candidates to run against the council members who had approved the plan.
Meanwhile, allegations of government wrongdoing flew around both Azusa and the neighboring community of Duarte, which was unhappy with a mine plan that would move mining operations closer to the community border. Duarte filed a lawsuit against Azusa. It claimed the project’s environmental impact report was flawed and alleged that the Azusa City Council violated open meetings laws. Former Azusa Mayor Diane Chagnon, a proponent of the plan, said the Duarte City Council misused public funds by hiring a public relations firm to help with the referendum and illegally discussed items in closed session. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office is investigating the claims against Duarte, while Duarte’s lawsuit against Azusa is about to be heard in court.
In terms of environmental impact, Vulcan plans to mine the 80 acres using a technique called “micro-benching,” which mines in 1- to 2-foot benches rather than the traditional 30-foot benches and allows for more natural-looking reclamation efforts. The plan won over area residents, including outdoor enthusiast Dan Simpson. The longtime Azusa resident told the Los Angeles Times that he found that a lot of opponents were uneducated about the plan and its environmental benefits. “It’s really easy to say ‘no’ as opposed to looking objectively at things,” he said. “You have people who just don’t understand the issues…but from an environmental standpoint, this is far superior than the current plan.”
If a local hiker can figure that out, maybe the courts can, too. If so, Vulcan’s Azusa story may be well on its way to a happy ending.