We're Outta Here! 

A massive mining operation near the Sunol-Ohlone wilderness will send the East Bay's coveted elk and eagles fleeing, to say nothing of the hikers.

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When the mine becomes operational, it will become the third quarry in the Sunol area. The tiny hamlet, tucked between Fremont and Pleasanton, already is home to the Cemex quarry just south of I-680, and the Hanson Aggregates quarry, which just opened north of the freeway. The county also wants to place a giant open-air compost facility next to the Cemex facility. Sunol, in short, is under siege. "We're beside ourselves with anger," said resident Neil Davies, a member of Save Our Sunol, a group formed to fight the Hanson quarry.

But the angriest residents may be the handful of homeowners at the top of Welch Creek Road. Their sprawling, multimillion-dollar ranch-style homes are less than a mile from Apperson Ridge, and a few of them are perched directly over it. In interviews, several said that when they purchased their homes in the past decade, they had no idea they would be living adjacent to an approved mining operation. "My property is probably one of the closer ones to the quarry," said resident Art Stine. "Right now, it's relatively quiet up here, but that's going to be interrupted by those grinding rock crushers."

Stine and other residents say they will fight DeSilva's mine, but neither they nor the plight of the elk and the eagles may offer the best hope of halting it. Golden eagles have long been protected by federal law, and it's illegal to kill them, but there are plenty of loopholes in DeSilva's permit. For example, if his workers see an eagle on its nest, they have to stop construction. But that leaves open the question of whether they will ever look for the big birds. Even if they do spot one, they can start work again once the eagle flies away. They also can simply avoid working during the spring nesting season.

A different kind of loophole has opened around the tule elk. DeSilva's original permit said he had to pay to move the herd to a new habitat, but since the permit was issued, state Fish and Game has changed its policy to forbid such relocations. There are now at least 3,800 tule elk statewide in 22 habitats, including San Antonio Reservoir, and there's apparently no other place for them. The department recently removed an elk herd from the former Concord Naval Weapons Station, but that was a special situation, said Terry Palmisano, a senior wildlife biologist for Fish and Game. The department, Palmisano explained, had wanted to relocate the Concord herd for years because it was penned into a small area and required too much staff time to manage.

So what does this mean for the Sunol elk herd, which according to water department officials has grown from just nine animals in 1980 to the 150 observed in an aerial survey last year? Now that Fish and Game has jettisoned its relocation policy, there's little DeSilva can do, according to Bruce Jensen of the county planning department. Advancements in technology, DeSilva claimed in an interview, will result in far less blasting than what was contemplated in the 1980s. Furthermore, he'll build bridges over streams, construct large culverts so that the elk can cross underneath the road, and then monitor the herd, he promised. The developer added that he believes when push comes to shove Fish and Game will relocate the elk.

But Palmisano and other state wildlife officials were adamant that moving the herd isn't an option. Meanwhile water department officials who have come to know the Sunol elk are skeptical of DeSilva's other mitigations, because elk are unlikely to go anywhere near a road with so much truck traffic. "It's ridiculous," said environmentalist Miller. "Essentially, all they're going to do is monitor the elk herd's demise."

Miller is both the executive director of the Alameda Creek Alliance and a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, and he may offer one of the best chances at stopping the Apperson Ridge quarry, or at least throwing a wrench into the plans. In the past decade, the Center for Biological Diversity has become the East Bay's most aggressive and prominent environmental group. Among its higher-profile campaigns is an attempt to stop the slaughter of large raptors, including golden eagles, by the wind turbines in the Altamont Pass.

In the summer of 2003, DeSilva's employees suspended work on the mining road after Miller complained they hadn't taken the proper steps to obtain Fish and Game permits. "The first thing they try to do out there, we'll sue," Miller promised.

The Center for Biological Diversity also argues that DeSilva's 22-year-old EIR is woefully outdated — not necessarily in terms of eagles or elk, but because at least three species known to live in the area have been added to the federal Endangered Species List in the interim. These are the Alameda whipsnake, the California tiger salamander, and the California red-legged frog, and it's unlawful to build a road or a quarry that would destroy their habitat without first conducting an adequate environmental review.

Miller has brought up this issue with county planning officials, but they basically claim their hands are tied. Since the county has already approved DeSilva's permit, planner Jensen argued, it cannot require additional environmental study unless DeSilva changes his mining proposal substantially.

The Apperson Ridge quarry almost certainly will end up in court sooner or later, and Miller's organization will almost certainly be the one that puts it there. Fish and Game officials wouldn't say whether they'll pressure DeSilva on the permit issue — they hinted they may wait for the center to sue and force their hand. The park district and Sierra Club, of course, have waived their rights. And county officials don't intend to put up further roadblocks — no public official, when push comes to shove, seems willing to tangle with Big Ed. "They told me they would rather have us sue them than DeSilva," Miller said.


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