By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Two environmental groups have agreed to drop their lawsuit challenging a large, planned gravel mine in the Russian River in exchange for some near-term reductions in the level of instream mining and more input on annual operations.
The settlement was announced Tuesday following its approval by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. It will allow Syar Industries of Napa to go forward with its project, which would remove gravel along a 6.5-mile stretch of river in the lower Alexander Valley outside of Geyserville.
Syar officials welcomed the deal in a joint statement released with the two environmental groups behind the lawsuit, Russian Riverkeeper of Healdsburg and the Redwood Empire chapter of Trout Unlimited.
The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the project in December 2010.
But river advocates argued the level of mining proposed — up to 350,000 tons of gravel annually for 15 years — would harm the river, its beleaguered salmon and steelhead populations and riverside landowners. Safeguards to prevent such impacts were inadequately addressed in the county’s environmental review, the two conservation groups claimed in their lawsuit, filed in January 2011.
The groups had pressed for a new environmental review, and for the project’s approval to be set aside and any pending or current work halted.
Under the settlement, the lawsuit will be dropped provided Syar and the county meet a number of measures. Those include a three-year reduction in the gravel to be mined from river bars, to a maximum of 175,000 tons a year, with an additional 40,000 tons per year linked to work strictly on habitat improvements; more detailed annual monitoring and county oversight that allows for input by river advocates and landowners; and the mutual formation of a scientific review team to guide ongoing decisions about the mining project. Syar has agreed to pay the environmental groups $30,000 to hire their own consultants to participate on the scientific team.
The deal resulted from more than a year and a half of negotiations that Don McEnhill, executive director of Russian Riverkeeper, described as “very difficult and often contentious.” He credited Syar officials and county representatives for their willingness to forge what he called “tighter more transparent oversight” of the project.
“As the mining occurs, we’re hopeful going forward that with this settlement we’ll be able to protect the Russian River and the native fish and wildlife that rely on it,” McEnhill said, echoing his written statement.
The Syar project was one of three disputed land-use projects approved by the Board of Supervisors in late 2010. The other two, which were approved on 3-2 votes, were the Roblar Road rock quarry west of Cotati and the Dutra Materials asphalt plant south of Petaluma. They also prompted legal challenges from opponents concerned about environmental impacts.
The lawsuit against the Dutra plant is before a state appellate court. The Roblar quarry case is also headed to the appellate level, following a local judge’s ruling in August that sided with quarry opponents on several core claims.
As part of its original application with the county, Syar agreed to pay county costs stemming from a legal dispute. County Counsel Bruce Goldstein did not have that figure immediately available Tuesday.
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or email@example.com.