Last Coastal Sand Mine in US Ordered to Close by 2020

MARINA, Calif. (CN) – The California Coastal Commission took steps to close the only remaining coastal sand mine in the United States during its meeting on Thursday.

The 10-person commission voted unanimously to approve a settlement that requires Cemex – Mexican multinational building material company – to close its sand mine in Marina, California, just north of Monterey by December 2020.

“To phase out of the last beach sand mine in the United States located in an area of one of the highest erosion rates in our state is an incredible accomplishment,” said California Coastal Commission executive director Jack Ainsworth. “This will be remembered as one of the most significant accomplishments in a long list of coastal protection actions undertaken by this body.”

The settlement was about a year and a half in the making, after the coastal commission sent Cemex a notice of intent letter last spring informing the company it would begin a cease-and-desist process.

Several environmental organizations, including Save Our Shores, Surfrider and others began to demand that the coastal commission shut down the mine, citing the detrimental environmental impacts the sand mine was causing in the southern reach of the Monterey Bay.

Specifically, the distinctive sand dunes characteristic of Monterey Bay are eroding at a rate of 3 to 6 feet per year – one of the highest rates of beach erosion in the state, according to several peer-reviewed scientific studies.

Cemex representatives have taken issue with that characterization, saying the factors involved in the localized beach erosion are many and complex.

“We respectfully disagree on several matters of fact and law, but we set those aside today in the interest of seeking resolution of this matter,” Jerae Carlson, vice president of sustainability and public affairs for Cemex, said during the meeting.

Ed Thornton, who has been working to shutter the sand mine since the 1980s when he first noticed the pronounced coastal erosion as a coastal engineer for the Postgraduate Navy School in Monterey, said the sand mind is almost totally responsible for the loss of beaches in the area.

“I would expect that when they stop sand mining in Marina, because there is still sand coming from the Salinas River, that the shoreline will start to grow again,” Thornton said.

The exuberant optimism expressed by Thornton was widespread during Thursday’s meeting, as the vast majority of attendees were in favor of the settlement and gave a prolonged standing ovation after the commission took the vote.

“When you think of how long that mine has been in operation under various owners and how much damage it has caused and now it is going to come to an end, it is a historic moment,” said Katherine O’Dea, executive director of Save Our Shores.

O’Dea has teamed up with Thornton and Jennifer Savage of Surfrider to pressure the commission for the past two years. She made sure to not only recognize the commission and other state agencies, but the willingness of Cemex to reach a resolution.

“I really do commend Cemex for coming to the table,” O’Dea said. “I think they saw the pressure that was brought to bear on them, but then they stepped up.”

Cemex will phase out sand mining, as it will give the company the opportunity to retrain and transition the many employees who earn a living working at the mine.

“There needs to be a transition process so that it does not unfairly impact workers,” Carlson said.

The sand mine has been in operation for more than a century, with operations at the property dating back to 1906. In the 1970s, regulators first began looking at sand mines in Monterey Bay, as there were at least seven in operation.

Many of the competing mines were shuttered, largely because they used a drag line to haul sand in from the nearby ocean bottom. Conversely, the Cemex sand mine uses a dredge pond, which allows large ocean swells in winter to dump sand in a pond in the middle of its 400-acre property.

After the sand accumulates throughout the winter, it operates a 30 by 60-foot dredge that sucks the sand out of the pond. The company then transports the sand to the plant on property where it is sifted, stored and shipped for use in building materials, mostly concrete.

The cessation of the sand mine was not the only good news for supporters of the Monterey Bay coastline, as part of the agreement between the parties stipulates that Cemex will transfer the land to either a nonprofit or governmental entity with the purpose of preserving the natural resources while allowing public access.

“It’s a great recreational opportunity,” Ainsworth said. “The future acquisition will create thousands of acres of contiguous open space and dune habitat.”

The unique dune habitat in the Monterey Bay provides a home for federally threatened species like the Monterey spineflower and the Smith’s blue butterfly.

The agreement stipulates that Cemex can withdraw no more than a total of 720,000 tons of sand over the final three years of operation, or no more than 240,000 tons annually.

The agreement is subject to third-party monitoring. If Cemex fails to honor the agreement, it could face fines up to $10,000 per day.

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