A Deal to Save Sunol and Ohlone

A new settlement will delay the opening of a huge new East Bay quarry and help protect elks, eagles, and two parks.

For years, environmentalists have steeled themselves for a fight
with the East Bay’s top road builder and quarry operator. Ed DeSilva
appeared to be on the brink of opening a massive quarry right next to
two breathtaking regional wildernesses — Sunol and Ohlone —
in southeastern Alameda County. The giant quarry also threatened to
devastate the East Bay’s only tule elk herd habitat, disrupt one of the
world’s best golden eagle nesting grounds, and disturb the tranquility
of more than 50,000 park visitors a year. But then last week, the two
environmental groups that had vowed to fight the quarry announced a
sweeping settlement agreement with DeSilva.

The deal between DeSilva and the Alameda Creek Alliance and the
Center for Biological Diversity promises to delay the mine opening for
decades while significantly lessening its ultimate impact on the elk,
eagles, and parks. In addition, DeSilva has promised to pay up to $3
million to help restore the decimated steelhead and Chinook salmon runs
in nearby Alameda Creek, from the San Francisco Bay through Niles
Canyon to the eastern end of the Sunol Valley. “This is huge,” said
Jeff Miller, director of the Alameda Creek Alliance and conservation
advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s going to make
the resurgence of steelhead and Chinook salmon much more possible.”

Jim Summers, president of the DeSilva Group, said last week that he
and his colleagues decided it made more sense to negotiate an agreement
with environmentalists than wage an extended and expensive court fight.
“Rather than going through all the legal battles, we decided to take
that money and put it into conservation measures,” he said. “And we get
the ability to say that we’re operating a quarry that is in concert
with the environment.”

The environmental groups’ staunch opposition to the quarry made the
odds of reaching any deal low. In fact, the settlement took nearly two
years to negotiate. But in retrospect, it should have come as no
surprise, considering DeSilva’s track record for deal making. Back in
1984, he originally obtained a county permit for the quarry after
reaching agreements with both the East Bay Regional Park District and
the Sierra Club. As part of those deals, DeSilva promised to share
proceeds of his quarry operation with the district and buy 300 acres of
land and give it to the park system. In addition, he financed an
extensive study of large birds in the area, including the golden
eagles, while promising to relocate the elk herd to another
habitat.

DeSilva put off opening the quarry because of steep start-up costs.
The planned quarry is in a remote location, on top of a privately owned
2,200-foot-tall mountain, known as Apperson Ridge. However, a few years
ago, DeSilva decided he was finally ready to open it, because his other
East Bay quarries in Fremont, Hayward, and Oakland had run out of rock.
And although both the park district and the Sierra Club had promised to
not stand in the way of his Apperson Ridge quarry, DeSilva hadn’t
counted on the Alameda Creek Alliance and the Center for Biological
Diversity, which has become one of the most aggressive and litigious
environmental organizations in the country. (For more on the quarry,
see “We’re Outta Here,” 4/12/06).

Nonetheless, Summers and DeSilva decided to find out whether they
could strike a deal just as they had done in 1984. Summers approached
Miller, who described himself as being “very skeptical.” In addition,
Summers tried to find a stopgap that would delay the opening of
Apperson Ridge. He approached the San Francisco Public Utilities
Commission, a major land owner in the Sunol area and the owner of a
separate rock quarry on the valley floor. DeSilva then submitted a bid
to take over that quarry, which had been run by another operator,
Cemex.

In 2007, as Summers was beginning negotiations with Miller, DeSilva
won the right to enter into exclusive negotiations with the San
Francisco PUC over the Cemex quarry, which still has another twenty to
thirty years of rock left in it. DeSilva decided it would make more
sense to mine that quarry for the next few decades, and then open
Apperson Ridge. That way, he would have a sixty-year supply — or
more — of rock needed for road building.

But the plan still threatened the eagles, elk, and parks —
albeit twenty to thirty years from now. So DeSilva and Summers decided
to modify it more. One of the biggest threats posed by the Apperson
Ridge quarry was a five-mile-long road that would connect the
mountaintop to Interstate 680. DeSilva had planned to run more than
1,100 dump trucks a day up and down that road, carrying up to 24 tons
of rock each. The road bisected the elk’s habitat inside San Francisco
PUC property, and experts warned that the noisy trucks would disperse
the herd and ultimately cause its demise. The state Fish and Game
Department also had told DeSilva that he could not move the herd to
another habitat because there were no more suitable ones in
California.

The quarry itself also threatened the herd because of ear-spitting
decibels from dynamiting rock, crushing it, and turning it into
asphalt. All that noise also promised to disrupt the nesting habitat of
golden eagles in the nearby Sunol and Ohlone Wilderness areas, and ruin
the experience of park visitors. So in the recent deal, DeSilva agreed
to build a giant conveyor belt from the top of Apperson Ridge down to
the quarry in the valley. That way, he could eliminate the need to run
dump trucks up and down the mountain. He also agreed to move almost all
of the rock crushers and the asphalt plant to the valley quarry,
thereby eliminating most of the noise problems. Summers also said that
modern explosives have lowered the decibels associated with blasting
rock out of the earth.

So will the new plan protect the elk? Miller said his groups have
talked with elk experts, who say the conveyor belt will be a big
improvement over the road, because the animals will be able to walk
underneath it, and won’t have to contend with huge dump trucks. The
absence of the rock crushers and the asphalt plant also will help. But
the dynamiting could produce considerable noise, even with modern
technology. “The key issue is if the elk can acclimate to the noise,
then they’ll live with it,” he said. And if they can’t? DeSilva has
agreed to pay $250,000 a year to help support other Northern California
elk habitats.

As for the eagles, both sides hope the absence of the trucks, the
rock crushers, and the asphalt plant will allow them to prosper. The
settlement also requires DeSilva to cease quarrying operations when
eagles are nesting nearby. DeSilva also has committed to exploring the
option of closing the mine entirely during the eagles’ spring nesting
season — which also coincides with the elk’s calving season. The
question is whether the San Francisco PUC will allow him to stockpile
rock in the valley quarry to get him through those months. As further
mitigation, DeSilva has promised to buy at least 600 more acres of
similar habitat and dedicate it as permanent open space.

However, the entire deal between DeSilva and the environmental
groups depends on whether the San Francisco PUC and the San Francisco
Board of Supervisors award the valley quarry to DeSilva. The commission
is scheduled to take up the issue on June 9, and then forward it to the
board of supes. If DeSilva gets turned down, then Summers says they’ll
move to open the Apperson Ridge Quarry right away. That, in turn, will
force the environmental groups to sue. To avoid all that, the groups
have promised to help DeSilva get the quarry permit. In fact, the
groups actually reached their settlement agreement in December, but
didn’t make it public until last week in order to give themselves time
to discuss it fully with San Francisco PUC staffers. Miller sounded
confident about their prospects.

As for the steelhead and the Chinook salmon, DeSilva has agreed to
pay up to $3 million to help finance fish ladders over three major
barriers on Alameda Creek. The ladders could end up costing $10 million
or more to install, but the financial commitment by DeSilva will help
other public agencies involved raise money to finance the projects,
Miller said.

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