Between a rock and a hard place
May 10, 2015
OPINION By ROBERT WINSLOW, PE
I am astounded by the number of intelligent, educated people who have abandoned all sense of rationality when it comes to the Las Pilitas Quarry project. I challenge anyone with a background in engineering or economics to explain how this project could possibly generate 200-plus brand new truck trips per day through Santa Margarita. It is not like anyone is going to suddenly start ordering 100-plus brand new loads of aggregate each day just because the Las Pilitas Quarry opened its doors.
What most people don’t understand or fail to realize is that San Luis Obispo County’s EIR and its projection of 273 average trips (or 137 truck loads of aggregate) per day is based on a “worst case scenario” that would require all the other area quarries to shut down completely, in order to achieve those numbers, and even then the quarry could only average 198 trips without going over their annual tonnage limit. The numbers used in the EIR bear no relationship to the actual reality of operating a quarry, and don’t even take into account how much time it takes to load and weigh a truck.
The Las Pilitas Quarry EIR did do a few things right. It studied the potential impacts of the truck traffic on the school crossing, pedestrian activity, and recreational cyclists. Even using those ridiculously high truck counts, it found no safety concerns.
The trucks will be traveling at relatively low speeds, and can see the crosswalks from much further away than can cars (which are generally going faster). The trucks also won’t come up on the bicyclists as quickly, and both bicyclists and pedestrians – including children – can hear and see the trucks coming much sooner than they could a car.
Many people have said they would welcome the calming effect that the heavy trucks will have on this stretch of roadway—it is the cars that are known to drive recklessly on Highway 58, not the trucks. Even people who spoke against the project at the SLO County Planning Commission admitted that professional truck drivers are generally safe and courteous—and likely to be more on alert than a distracted teenager or someone who is late for work or trying to get their child to school on time. To say that the trucks pose a greater danger to schoolchildren and pedestrians than cars is irrational.
Rather, most of the objections to this project really boil down to inconvenience. People don’t want to be “stuck” behind a truck for three miles when they are already late for work and hence likely to be speeding—thus the calming effect noted above.
People say they don’t want to have to listen to trucks rumbling down a state highway while they are sipping their coffee—never mind that this would only occur Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., while most people are at work, and never mind the fact that the trucks make far less noise than the trains that regularly go through town, or the Harley-Davidsons that frequent Highway 58 on the weekends.
There is no appreciable difference between the Hanson Quarry and the Las Pilitas Quarry, other than the 3.3 miles of haul route along Highway 58 from Estrada Avenue to the Las Pilitas Quarry entrance. The Las Pilitas Quarry will also be much smaller.
If people object to the Las Pilitas Quarry but not the Hanson Quarry, it should be for some legitimate reason related to this stretch of road, and this stretch of road alone. I give no credence to the claim that the Las Pilitas Quarry itself will be noisier and more visible than the Hanson Quarry, given that they would be located nearly adjacent to one another. It bears repeating that the Las Pilitas EIR studied this stretch of road assiduously, and found no safety concerns.
Even the Hanson traffic study admits that they send a portion of their trucks out Highway 58 for deliveries, as does Navajo Sand & Gravel, and this stretch of highway certainly saw a massive amount of truck traffic during the four years of construction of the solar projects without any safety issues.
Consider the precedent it sets to say that some people and projects have a right to use a state highway but not others. I’m not sure that is even legal. It is also very dangerous precedent to allow this much needed rock resource to be rendered inaccessible simply because enough people complained that they did not want to have to see or hear the project. What happens when the next project is proposed?
It has become a favorite mantra of people opposed to vital resource projects, whether they be low income housing projects, homeless centers, or quarries, to simply say “wrong location.” In other words, “we don’t deny that projects like this are needed, but just don’t put them here.” There is another phrase for that mindset, but it has become so trite that I won’t say it. But what happens when that objection is allowed to be used too often? The result is either no vital resource projects get built, because a self-motivated, short-sighted mindset has taken control of the long-range planning process, or else social and environmental injustice– where “undesirable” projects simply get shunted to those communities who don’t have the financial or political resources to object.
The problem with quarries is that you can’t put them just anywhere, and the typical land use planning process of finding alternative sites becomes very constrained. That is why the Surface Mining And Reclamation Act (SMARA) requires counties to identify large deposits of rock in their general plans and zone them for mining uses—which this county did for this deposit in 1986 and again in 1991.
Quarries have to be located in areas are rural enough to accommodate their size, but not so rural that it costs more to get the rock to market than the rock is worth. That’s a hard combination to come by, but it exists right outside of Santa Margarita. Frankly, I don’t see how you can get any rock out of this huge granite deposit and out to Highway 101 without going through either Santa Margarita or south Atascadero. Some people say that the answer is to build a new road for the quarry, but the impossibility and irony of doing that (given that it takes 20,000 tons of aggregate to build one mile of road, and when there is a perfectly good state highway already in place) should not be lost on anyone who takes the time to think about it for long.
There are those who claim that we do not need another quarry in the county and that the two existing quarries are perfectly capable of serving the demand. The problem with that statement is that it is based on back-of-the-envelope calculations by decidedly non-experts, and it disregards the continued directives from the state that we are running out of available rock and should be opening as many new quarries as we can in the next 50 years. In that sense, this mineral resources situation has the potential to end up like the critical water situation in North County, if the state’s directives continue to be ignored or the problem kicked down the road.
To me, it is telling to take note of the people who support the Las Pilitas Quarry, and the people who oppose it. By and large, the people who support the new quarry are the people who actually have to buy aggregate, or whose livelihoods depend on a ready supply of it—contractors, construction workers, owners of commercial rentals, and the like. Most of the people I have seen speak in opposition to the project have probably never had to buy a full truckload of aggregate in their lives. The house they live in was already built, the road to it paved and their driveway was already graveled or paved when they moved in.
Land use decisions such as this have important ramifications that go beyond just the immediate project impacts, and I hope that the supervisors will not make this decision lightly. I believe that county staff has done a disservice to both the decision-makers and the public by greatly overstating the impacts of this quarry, which has only served to ignite emotions and unnecessarily pit neighbor against neighbor. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but ideally that opinion should be based on real facts and plausible scenarios, not irrational numbers and fear mongering.
Finally, as important as it is for the public to be heard, it is worth remembering that responsible land use decisions should not be made on the basis of public opinion alone, but in the context of all of our applicable laws, ordinances, project studies and planning documents, which call for responsible development of this mineral deposit for the long-term good of the County. For these reasons, I support approval of the Las Pilitas Quarry.
Robert Winslow is a professional engineer who lived for several years near the proposed quarry before moving to Atascadero.
Don’t miss links to local opinions, like CCN on Facebook.