The Next Endangered Species – Construction Aggregate Resources

In 1976, the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA) became law in California.  SMARA provides a carrot and a stick for mine operators, with promises to protect important mineral resources for future extraction, while also requiring greater regulatory oversight and enforcement.  Initially, SMARA's promised resource protection features were implemented through the addition of a team of geologists (>20) to the Division of Mines and Geology to map important resource areas, passing this information on to local land use agencies for incorporation in local land use plans.  However, as the regulatory function authorized by SMARA has flourished; the mineral resources conservation duties have not enjoyed similar attention.  From a meager beginning, the Division of Mine Reclamation now employs more than 30 full time professionals charged with implementing a highly technical law and regulations aimed at ensuring regular reporting, financial assurance adequacy, lead agency compliance, reclamation plan adequacy, and abandoned mine lands reclamation.  Yet the mineral resource conservation requirements are generally ignored by both lead agencies and the State agencies that should be protecting them for resource extraction. 

Recent amendments to SMARA provide for increased fees to mine operators.  The increased revenue will be allocated primarily towards record keeping and enforcement with only limited funds allocated to the CGS for mineral resource conservation.  Not only has mineral resource conservation staffing become nearly extinct (currently staffing is only the State Geologist and 2 support staffer), it can be argued that no SMARA monies should be devoted to CGS staffing unless significant improvement in resource conservation measures are enabled. 

All across the state we are seeing significant declines in access to aggregate resources due to pressures resulting from urbanization and a moribund and nearly stagnant permitting process.  Although the state enjoys an abundance of resources suitable for aggregate use, the permitting process is so onerous that it is becoming feasible to import the materials from extended distances at increased cost to consumers.  Not only are we exporting high paying jobs to remote areas, we are also increasing the amount of transportation required to move these materials.  This is affected at significant cost to consumers with a commensurate increase in greenhouse gas emissions. 

Under the current leadership, CGS has little worth to the mineral resource industry; or arguably for the people of California.  CGS refuses to support the need for mineral resource development, retreating to a position of academic purity.  Yes, the property has aggregate development potential based on scientific information supporting this position.  No, CGS doesn't support the need for developing local resources.  The population consumes vast quantities and the industry meets this demand.  This information is offered without the color of benefit to the local economy or environmental necessity of providing high bulk products in close proximity to its area of consumption (i.e., reduced GHG emissions).  Unless the industry pays directly for the evaluation of specified lands, no new classification petitions are forthcoming. 

In other areas, CGS does not register concerns where urban encroachment threatens to sterilize access to important mineral resources.  Although CEQA requires the assessment of impacts to mineral resources, CGS never comments where development projects or competing land use constraints would have the potential to eliminate access to aggregate resources.  In contrast, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife routinely reviews and comments on all projects that have the potential to impact resources within their charge.  Why not CGS?

A closer look at legal constraints related to the State’s natural resources finds that air, water, and biological resources are protected with a variety of statutory and regulatory systems.  Stormwater permits have transitioned from a casual system of runoff controls to an elaborate maze of regulatory burdens that require even minor construction projects to implement harsh controls over stormwater runoff.  A project’s effects to biological resources must be thoroughly analyzed with impacts offset by a commensurate purchase of habitat credits in a closely monitored preserve.  Yet, the cornerstone of our economy, construction aggregate resources, have no true protection against land uses that limit and prohibit eventual development. 

Should there be a system in place designed to recognize the importance of these resources?  One might say that the marketplace is the best regulator.  If there is a need and the profit potential is great enough, the resources will be developed, no matter the cost.  Certainly, the market is an important controlling dynamic.  However, there are other physical and social controls that limit development in close proximity to the market areas. 

Trucking costs are rising.  In an effort to limit carbon emissions, air quality regulations limit the types of engines that can be used to transport materials.  Fuel costs are rising.  Area freeways are operating above capacity, slowing all traffic movement.  All of these facts are increasing the cost of moving materials. 

If it is too expensive to transport materials by truck, why not use rail?  Rail is often cited as an alternative for reducing the horsepower necessary to move high bulk commodities over extended distances.  Our rail systems are also operating at near capacity and the infrastructure necessary for efficient delivery within our highest use areas is deficient.  The cost of improving infrastructure to enable efficient movement is excessive. 

Importing materials through our ocean ports has been hailed as a solution.  Several years back, the San Diego Association of Governments, completed a study to identify the infrastructure improvements necessary for more efficient delivery of products from its port facilities.  The cost of these improvements was estimated to be several billion dollars.  And, once the products are delivered to the port, they must still be moved by trucks to their ultimate destination. 

Is there a solution?  Certainly, and it is obvious.  Develop available resources in close proximity to the market place.  How can we accomplish this?  Consideration should be given to SMARA amendments that would:

  • Identify high quality resources within regional market areas that will be necessary to ensure achievement of carbon reduction goals;
  • Limit competing land uses that would otherwise limit the ability to access these resources;
  • Require compensatory fees mineral resource replacement for land uses that would limit or sterilize the mineral resource development;
  • Limit the risk encountered in the permitting process by establishing by-right use within designated resource areas; and
  • Conduct regional environmental evaluations to identify performance standards for implementation within the specified resource districts. 

Unless we face this problem directly, our inability to access these critical resources will eventually cause economic stagnation and a declining standard of living for the population.