A controversial proposed sand and gravel mine project in Santa Clara County is being scaled back following public outcry and a draft environmental report from the county.

Sargent Ranch is a 6,200-acre plot of undeveloped land four miles south of Gilroy. After longstanding owners filed for bankruptcy in 2013, the new property owners are asking the county’s permission to use less than 8 percent of the land to mine 40 million tons of sand and gravel for local concrete and asphalt production.

County planners released a 652-page environmental impact report in July to assess all areas of potential harm this project could bring, as well as provide suggested alternatives to mitigate these impacts. They concluded the project poses “significant and unavoidable impacts” for the environment’s aesthetics, air quality, biological resources and geology, among other categories.

In response, Sargent Ranch owners decided to shift gears on their 403-acre quarry, to be called Sargent Quarry. They are adopting the report’s suggestion to move the mine one mile north to avoid blocking essential wildlife passages, scratch off a new on-ramp to U.S. 101 and remove two mining operations that were close to Betabel Bluffs, a place deemed culturally significant for the local Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.

“There are no mitigation measures and no overriding considerations that could possibly make up for the irreversible desecration this project would ravage on this land …”

Teddy Simon, quarry opponent

During a public comment meeting on Aug. 25, dozens of residents said the proposed quarry, which would operate for 30 years, also poses significant threat to Native American spiritual grounds and animals reliant on the hills to travel to and from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Many also said the review overlooks impacts that simply cannot be mitigated — things like the site’s water consumption or its potential to harm federally-recognized threatened species like the California red-legged frog and the California tiger salamander.

But the most frequently voiced concern in the meeting was the irreparable harm the project would post on the land’s spiritual landscape, and how eerily similar the ordeal compares to the state’s longstanding history of colonization.

“There are no mitigation measures and no overriding considerations that could possibly make up for the irreversible desecration this project would ravage on this land, or on the ability of the Amah Munstun Tribal Band to exercise their inherent sovereignty and exist as a people,” said a public commenter Teddy Simon, advocate for the Racial & Economic Justice Program at the ACLU of Northern California.

Ready to compromise

In an interview, Howard Justus of Sargent Ranch said there is potential to give land back to the Amah Mutsun for native ceremonies — something the group hasn’t had the chance to do since Spanish colonization in the late 18th century.

“The Amah Muntsun needs to either have their own land to call home, or they need a cultural site … they need something, we don’t know what that is,” said Justus. “We think that that gets determined by ongoing discussions that obviously they have to play a major role in, but we’re willing and able to come to the table and figure this out.”

Proponents of the Sargent Ranch Quarry contend that a nearby source for mined sand and gravel is essential to the local construction industry, which could confront shortages and higher prices if existing supplies from Canada are disrupted. (Photo via Freepik)

Justus admitted that sand quarries are historically hard to permit and “generally undesirable to have as a neighbor” — they traditionally come from riparian environments along rivers and streams and cause destruction to aquatic habitats, and create dust, noise and truck traffic.

But it is something he thinks the region needs. He said the site will provide 25 percent more sand and gravel to a region that currently only has 30 percent of the supply it needs for the next 50 years.

“At the end of the day, it’ll still be significantly under-supplied and under-resourced, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction,” said Justus.

Justus said using a local quarry is about 25 percent less carbon intensive than importing sand from Vancouver, Canada, which he said is what the county is doing now. Any significant disruption to the supply chain could make local construction companies fall vulnerable to soaring material costs.

“It’s generally wise for every region to have their own supply to guard against those elements,” Justus said.

‘We’ve given too much’

What makes their proposed quarry unique, Justus said, is the fact that it is drawing from an upland supply, meaning no harm to aquatic communities, and there is north and south highway access despite being several miles away from the closest residents.

“None of the three parties are going to walk away with everything they want, but all three should get a substantial chunk of what they want, Justus said. “I think that is what the EIR process is all about: identifying impacts, identifying mitigation and negotiating a resolution to accomplish that.”

Opponents still stand firm in their opposition despite the landowners’ proposed solution.

Valentin Lopez is chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. He says legal loopholes allow projects such as the proposed Sargent Ranch Quarry to take advantage of sacred tribal lands. (Photo courtesy of Amah Mutsun Land Trust

Valentin Lopez, Amah Mutsun chairman, said he’s happy to meet common ground with other interests, so long as it does not compromise the tribe’s culture or spirituality. Using the land for public walking or biking trails would be viable, not private monetary gain.

“We’ve given too much. We’ve given our blood, our lives, we’ve given our lands we never signed away. As a tribe, we have never signed away our water rights, or mineral rights, or land rights,” Lopez said. “People have profited greatly from those lands every day, the people in the Greater Bay Area and throughout the United States.”

Lopez said he was stunned when he first heard about the project, and it made him realize how little protection the tribe has without federal recognition. He calls on the county to work on setting new laws to prevent people from taking advantage of loopholes that make it possible to destroy spiritual lands.

“We ask people today to recognize the true history and to help tribes restore their culture, restore their spirituality and help them return to their places. Help them find ways to fulfill their obligation to Creator, to take care of Mother Earth and all living things, and to teach each other with love, patience and kindness,” Lopez said.

Santa Clara County’s 60-day public comment window will come to a close on Sept. 26.