Proposed gravel mine northwest of Snelling appealed

At left Eldon George and George Morrow of Merced-based Jim Brisco Enterprises, Inc. propose to mine the gravel near the Tuolumne River, near La Grange.
At left Eldon George and George Morrow of Merced-based Jim Brisco Enterprises, Inc. propose to mine the gravel near the Tuolumne River, near La Grange. Debbie Noda / The Modesto Bee

A proposed gravel mine near the Tuolumne River near La Grange and northwest of Snelling has drawn opposition from a handful of area residents concerned about water contamination and safety issues.

The residents filed an appeal of the Stanislaus County Planning Commission's approval of the project last month. It is scheduled to be heard at the March 31 Board of Supervisors meeting.

The project is on Lake Road between Turlock Lake and La Grange. Residents are concerned with how the project will affect ground and surface water and potential safety problems.

Delaney Aggregates would be a sand and gravel mine on 40 acres of an 80-acre property owned by Mildred Zanker. Jim Brisco Enterprises of Merced would develop the project. The mining operation would include four mining pits, ranging from two to 22 acres, dug to a maximum depth of 40 feet.

The property would be mined over 10 years. The mining pits would be left as ponds when the project is finished.

The site is relatively flat and strewn with cobbles, the round rocks found in the river bed, along with sand and smaller rock. The cobbles are left from gold dredging in the area that took place in the 1940s and 1950s. During the 1960s and 1970s, dredged material from the site was taken and used as fill for the Don Pedro Dam, according to George Morrow, president of Jim Brisco Enterprises. The land is used for cattle grazing, although vegetation is sparse.

Morrow sees several niche markets for the sand, rocks and gravel, from landscape rock to well casing fill and restoration of the salmon beds in the river.

Morrow points to a letter from California Department of Transportation Director Will Kempton to counties urging them to approve new sand and gravel mining operations in the state. The letter, sent in September, contends that more mining operations will reduce the distance trucks have to travel to construction sites, saving money and eliminating air pollution.

The appeal contends that residents in the area weren't given enough time to respond to the proposal and raises the water and safety issues. Contaminated water from the mining pits will flow into the river during flood years, according to documents filed with the appeal.

Mercury contamination?

Barbara Miller-Crum, who lives in one of about 10 ranchettes along the river east of the site, said a study of a county-owned site next to the property found mercury contamination from the previous gold mining operations.

Morrow said he had a consulting company test for several potential contaminants including mercury and the tests were negative.

"How can that be? There was mercury on the adjacent property," Miller-Crum said.

Miller-Crum also raised safety problems related to public access to the property and the truck trips the project would add on Lake Road. The road is used by cattle trucks from a nearby feedlot and Hughson school district buses, she said, and has deteriorated.

Morrow said the truck traffic shouldn't pose a problem. The trucks will be traveling one mile on Lake Road to Highway 132, he said, and with a load of sand and gravel, they likely will not reach speeds above 30 mph.

The project would contribute 5.5 cents per ton of material hauled out for maintenance and improvement of Lake Road, according to planning documents. The mining operation will be at least 50 feet from the road.

If the Board of Supervisors rejects the appeal, the mining operation could begin quickly with portable rock screeners and construction equipment, Morrow said. Although the recession has curtailed demand for the material, the rocks and sand could be sorted by size and stockpiled for when the economy picks up, he said.

Jim Brisco Enterprises is a small operation, Morrow said, and he has spent $220,000 on various studies and environmental reviews to get the mining project approved.

Miller-Crum said the homesites along the river can be traced back to the 1850s, and residents are just trying to protect what they have.

"We want clean water, fish, peace and protection," she said.

The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors has scheduled a hearing on the appeal at 9:15 a.m. on March 31 in the basement chambers at 1010 10th St., Modesto.