Mineral Resource Conservation: SMARA’s Second Leg

Written by Warren Coalson.

California became a state because of its mineral wealth. People from around the world flocked to the gold fields of central California and turned over the earth in the promise of riches to come. Small towns sprouted up and a continuous stream of people flowed into the state. The gold rush lasted a few years and, what had been a geographically isolated area on the west coast of North America, was suddenly home to 300,000 residents.

Through the years, more people came to the state and the economic importance of mineral resource development became less noticeable as other economic sectors prospered. However, the legacy of mineral resource development continues and is the underpinning of our economic system.

In 1975, the legislature adopted the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA). SMARA was established with the support of the industry and environmental groups. Its promise was to emphasize the importance of mineral resources to the State’s economy, while also ensuring reclamation of mined lands and environmental protection. Management of SMARA directives was assigned to the Department of Conservation (DOC), Division of Mines and Geology (DMG). DMG was later divided into the California Geological Survey (CGS) and the Office of Mine Reclamation (OMR).

The opening statement in SMARA states that (§2711.(a)):

…the extraction of minerals is essential to the continued economic well-being of the state and to the needs of society, and that the reclamation of mined lands is necessary to prevent or minimize adverse effects on the environment and to protect the public health and safety.

Implementing the goals stated above, SMARA further defines the legislative intent to include (§2712):

(a) Adverse environmental effects are prevented or minimized…
(b) The production and conservation of minerals are encouraged…

In the early years, after SMARA was adopted, mineral resource conservation and mine reclamation were on equal footing. DMG was staffed by more than 20 people who were involved with identifying important mineral resources throughout the state, with specific attention paid to construction aggregates. All important market areas of the state were mapped, high quality resources classified and then designated as regionally significant to ensure that local agencies accounted for these resources in their land use planning process. However, as the years have gone by, this function has been assumed by the CGS and staffing cut precipitously.

Today, CGS has 5 full time employees. Their duties are limited to updating previous classification reports and the periodic investigation of classification petitions. Internally sponsored classification efforts are a thing of the past – this is beyond CGS’s stated purpose – to provide unbiased geologic information.

Updated classification reports are inadequate because they do not sufficiently document resource accessibility (or more accurately, inaccessibility). In a recent update of the Coachella Valley PC Region, CGS recommended the declassification of a large area of MRZ-2 resource that had been compromised by renewable energy development. However, there was no mention of the development restrictions resulting from the establishment of habitat conservation areas in the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan. Our research indicates that nearly 58% of the MRZ-2 resource in the Coachella Valley PC Region has been sterilized by this plan.

Habitat conservation extends beyond local planning efforts. Conservation organizations (e.g., The Nature Conservancy, etc.) have acquired substantial acreages and have established easements protecting the land from any kind of development. While renewable energy projects are considered to be resource compromising, habitat conservation easements are not. As a result, the potential accessibility to known high quality mineral resources is grossly over stated. This is contrary to the public interest and damaging to anybody trying to obtain approval to conduct mining operations.

We assume that CGS does not consider these withdrawals because they do not have the staffing to adequately research and identify these accessibility limitations. At the same time, the other leg of SMARA, reclamation and prevention of adverse environmental effects, is staffed by the OMR with more than 30 full time employees.

It is common to receive comments from OMR on a reclamation plan that reaches beyond regulatory fiat. On one such occasion we received a comment that a planned final slope might be unstable and suggested that a slope stability assessment should be completed. However, the site was located in a rural area of the desert, the final slope was proposed at 4:1 (horizontal : vertical) and the materials were composed of blow sand. Apparently, the DOC has plenty of time to make ridiculous comments, but not enough to identify the loss of resource availability; a resource that is the absolute basis of our economy.

As currently structured, I see no purpose for continuing to fund the California Geological Survey. California became a state because of its mineral wealth, but now the mining industry is treated with disdain. Valuable mineral resources are being sterilized at an alarming rate by a variety of influences and our state government deems it inappropriate to identify these threats because somebody might see this as biased in support of the industry. Even if there are resources available for development, the permitting process commonly extends for greater than 10 years at the cost of several million dollars. When coupled with the potential risk of failure and damage to its public image, most companies are loathe to risk a permitting effort. The result will be a continued decline of production sites in all areas of the state and a resulting increase in material costs. It will also result in a continued reduction in the number of companies involved in the industry.

I am not calling for the elimination of the CGS. CGS staffers are well trained and helpful within stated limitations. I am calling for CGS to alter its mission to enable a broader examination of resource availability. This should also be extended to protecting the resources from competing development and [enabling] companies to actually access these resources. The latter will be addressed in another article on this subject.

Warren Coalson is the president of EnviroMINE, Inc.