Grading problems

By From page A4 | July 11, 2014

One element of this year’s Grand Jury report provided a valuable highlight on some issues that need correction — enforcing the grading ordinance.

There are several sections dealing with what has been the lack of enforcement of the county’s Grading Ordinance, but the key issue is the site of the old Diamond Lime Plant.

Lime is an inorganic compound most commonly used for mortar. The Turks and 19th century Greeks burned statues and columns found around Athens, Greece, to make lime. It also has uses in the manufacturing process for sugar, as witnessed by sugar moguls, the Spreckels family, and their prior ownership of the limestone quarry in Marble Valley, another area served by a railroad spur.

The Diamond plant and its lime kilns and sludge-settling ponds began operation in the Diamond Springs area in 1935 and continued until “at least 1977,” according to the 2013-14 Grand Jury Report. The lime was shipped out on the railroad, which has since become a paved hiking trail. It was observant hikers who noticed milky water and dead animals “in two tributaries of Weber Creek” and reported it to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The timeline in this whole process is not readily apparent from the Grand Jury’s discussion of this issue, but the state Fish and Wildlife Service documented the discharge on March 17, 2011. The Grand Jury wrote that the discharge tests “showed salinity up to pH 12, equivalent to ammonia or oven cleaner, on the property.” The Natural Resources Conservation Services’ chart lists soil with a pH of 6.6-7.3 as neutral and 9 and above as “strongly alkaline.”

It turns out that the discharge resulted from unpermitted and improper grading of the old lime plant property.

CDFW’s investigation resulted in a case being filed by the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office. That case was dismissed, however, a year before this year’s Grand Jury was impaneled, DA Vern Pierson told the Mountain Democrat. The reason it was discharged was that not all regulatory actions had been exhausted. That differs from the Big Cut Mine case still under prosecution because all regulatory actions had been exhausted in that case, the DA pointed out.

The only other timeline noted by the 2013-14 Grand Jury was a consulting engineers and geologist report of June 4, 2012, prepared as a plan for mitigation of the Diamond lime plant property.

This plan was submitted in response to the state Department Fish and Wildlife and it was also filed with the county Department of Transportation. CDFW gave its conditional approval to the plan, but DOT never issued a grading permit. Why? Because the plan review fee was never paid.

While the DA was forthright about his office’s role in this, the person responsible for the Department of Transportation, Kim Kerr, provided only this non-response to our reporter: “We received your e-mail. The county will not be providing a comment on the report until our official response is due.” That is 90 days after the Grand Jury issued its report. Thanks for the information.

As noted by the DA, regulatory actions have not been exhausted. Besides the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, there is also the Central Valley Water Quality Control Board. More importantly there is the El Dorado County Department of Transportation.

As noted by the Grand Jury report, “the county Grading, Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance” has an enforcement section titled “Corrective Action.” “… it allows ‘that … the director may order county workers or contractors to immediately enter private property to abate hazards to public health and safety…’ The section allows direct cost recovery including ‘… a lien on the property.’”

And here is where the Grand Jury hit the nail right on the head: “However, the Grand Jury could not identify any instance where the provision of” that section “had been invoked. Instead, the county took no action and let improper grading continue.”

It should be noted the county issued a stop work order. Yet, grading continued and it did not conform to the engineered plans that had gotten conditional approval from state wildlife officials and had been submitted to the county without payment. Hence, milky runoff and dead animals.

Now this property is slated to be a future retail center and part of it will be used for the four-lane Diamond Springs Parkway. We agree with the Grand Jury’s statement: “It would be completely irresponsible of the county to allow the Diamond-Dorado parkway project to proceed without ensuring that all environmental issues and mitigations have been resolved.” And that means getting on the property and grading it according to the engineered plan, then putting a lien on the property.

The county engineering staff and the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors — once a new board is seated — need to hold hearings and discussions on its grading ordinance to weed out overburdonsome regulations affecting individual rural homebuilders and private road maintenance and step up enforcement of major grading projects.

Mountain Democrat

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