The Associated Press August 31, 2011, 10:59AM ET

CA city, tribe, ecologists fight proposed quarry

Antique shops line the streets of Temecula, Calif.'s quaint downtown fashioned after the Old West, with tour vans waiting to whisk visitors to scenic vineyards outside the city and hot air balloons gliding above the greenery.

It's a postcard image amid a series of desert towns in inland Southern California -- one that hundreds of residents, ecologists and members of an Indian tribe fear is threatened by a proposal to build a quarry on a mountain overlooking the city.

The groups have banded to fight the plan by Granite Construction Co., one of the country's largest construction material companies, to mine the mix of sand and gravel from the nearby mountain.

The proposed 135-acre quarry has received unprecedented attention in the region, and the Riverside County Planning Commission held five meetings to gather public comment. The commission is expected to decide Wednesday whether to grant a mining permit for the project, although Granite has asked for a delay to negotiate with the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians.

For the tribe, the location of the proposed quarry represents the place where their ancestors were created. The tribe's claims have prompted a heated discussion about the protection of Native-American heritage and helped advance a bill in the state Senate to restrict mining near Native-American sacred sites.

"It is not an option to tell our future generations that their place of creation, the basis of their history and their very identity, used to be here," Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro said.

For Temecula residents, a gap between the mountains brings cool ocean breezes and fresh air to what would otherwise be another sweltering desert town. If the quarry is approved, those winds -- also a blessing for optimum grape growing -- would also bring bits of rock and dust blasted into the air from the quarry, residents say.

"There's literally a wall of smog and all of a sudden you're in this area where the air is clean," said Bob Johnson, assistant city manager for Temecula. "You put a mine right in the center of this and you change our quality of life and the whole reason people are here."

Such classic battles between environmental stewards and industry have played out at quarry projects in places as far away as West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Granite Construction Co., based in Watsonville, is proposing to build the Liberty Quarry on the backside of an oak-covered mountain overlooking Temecula. They plan to dig 1,000 feet deep and annually churn out up to 5 million tons of aggregate -- the sand and gravel used in building materials for everything from concrete to roads to dams.

In 2006, California was reported to need more than 13.5 billion tons of aggregate over the next 50 years, but permits had been issued for what amounted to a 16-year supply, according to the state Department of Conservation.

Company officials say the quarry will help meet the ever-growing demand for aggregate and avoid having loud, rumbling trucks haul the material across several states, which increases construction costs and pollutes the air.

"We should be spending our tax dollars wisely to build something, not truck something across a county," said Gary Johnson, Granite's aggregate resource manager. "It doesn't make sense to keep doing it the way we're doing it."

The 4,000-foot-long quarry and processing plants would be hidden from view from Temecula. But many residents of the city of 100,000 people located 60 miles north of San Diego and about 25 miles inland from the coast aren't convinced.

County planners recommend the project, noting the quarry would create 100 jobs. It would also be located next to Interstate 15, which would reduce truck trips throughout the region for construction.

Granite has promised to use water to spray down the dust and move rock via conveyer belts to enclosed processing plants to keep the air clear. The company has won some supporters, such as retired salesman Larry Lepley.

"I don't have a dog in the fight. I just look at things and try to apply common sense," Lepley, 72, said, adding that he trusts in the environmental studies conducted on the quarry. "The window of common sense tells me this is not a project that is going to hurt the area."

The many opponents include residents in nearby hamlets and those who work at the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve, a pristine area surrounding the quarry site that is used for international research on ecology and environmental science. The site is home to endangered species such as the Least Bell's Vireo, a small, gray songbird that has seen its ranks dwindle amid a loss of river habitat.

Deep in a riverbed laced with lime green moss, butterflies dart alongside the brush and water trickles over stones. A cluster of cameras snap shots of the Santa Margarita River for research overseen by San Diego State University.

"You can't get it back," said Pablo Bryant, the reserve's research technology manager. "We can't rebuild it. Does the need for aggregate outweigh the biodiversity, the conservation, the ecology? Are those short-term gains worth it?"

Some residents in nearby communities fear their hillside neighborhoods could be overtaken by noise, traffic and dust. Tourism, which generates roughly $600 million a year and 6,000 jobs, could also take a hit, some residents say.

A local association of wine growers -- who are key contributors to the tourism industry -- has largely stayed out of the fray to avoid upsetting county officials who need to sign off on upcoming vineyard projects at a time when the region is booming. Still, many growers are worried, said Bill Wilson, whose family owns a winery in the Temecula Valley.

On a recent weekday afternoon, tourists clinked glasses at the bar of the Wilson Creek Winery & Vineyard, which opened 11 years ago and now generates $15 million in revenue a year.

Standing in a cavernous storage room stocked with barrels from floor to ceiling, Wilson said the quarry now puts that at risk -- whether it ends up harming the grapes or not. That's because wine drinkers' perception matters as much or more than whether dust from the quarry ever grazes the fruit, he said.

"If the consumer believes because we have a quarry, whether it's true or not, it will negatively affect the grapes, guess what? In their mind, it will negatively affect the grapes," Wilson said. "Perception is reality."


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