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No environmental review for sand mine, yet 

SLO County supervisors voted to let Paul Viborg mine sand from the Estrella River despite protests from legal, environmental, and planning experts that the environmental review has been minimal so far, if not illegal.

County supervisors argued well into the night on Dec. 16 over Viborg’s mining operation, which will take up to 45,000 cubic yards per year from the riverbed over the span of the two-year permit. But Viborg’s is just the first of five proposed mining operstions that could extract sand from the Salinas River and its tributaries, and experts said they don’t know whether the river could survive the removal.

Supervisor Bruce Gibson fervently tried to convince the county to require an Environmental Impact Report, to no avail. Bouncing between Principal Environmental Specialist John Nall and County Counsel Tim McNulty, Gibson asked if the findings to uphold the appeal had any merit. Nall said he believed an EIR should have been prepared because of differing expert opinions, and McNulty said the project failed to meet all county zoning requirements and should have more analysis.

Even with county staff saying the project may be in violation of California environmental law, the board voted 3-2 to uphold the appeal and approve the project.

“Too often has this board taken actions that I think are irresponsible actions given the predictable outcome,” Supervisor Jim Patterson lamented.

Still, outgoing Supervisors Jerry Lenthall and Harry Ovitt, along with Katcho Achadjian, didn’t think an EIR was required, despite numerous arguments to the contrary from the Department of Fish and Game.

Fish and Game officials were the first to ask for an EIR when the project was before planning commissioners, which Viborg and his representatives called a maneuver to kill the project. But before he can mine, Viborg still needs a streambed alteration permit from the California Department of Fish and Game. Staff Environmental Specialist Deborah Hillyard said that unless the project is altered to reduce significant impacts to the river, Fish and Game will still require an EIR before it hands over a permit.

Planning Commissioners denied the Viborg mine because there was no EIR, but Viborg appealed to county supervisors, who tentatively upheld his appeal 3-2 on Nov. 25.

There were times when the supervisors didn’t seem to know what, exactly, they were voting on. County staff put together more than 200 pages of findings and conditions for the project, but Viborg’s representatives also dropped off nearly identical paperwork the morning of the appeal hearing. Supervisors all seemed to be looking at different language and at one point the meeting deteriorated so much that no one knew which set of language was being voted on. The board even had to break for an hour while county counsel went page-by-page to make sure the applicant’s language was in line with county policies.

—Colin Rigley

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