Mining trains in Oakdale, Riverbank? Not all aboard

March 1, 2011 

Riverbank and Oakdale officials are keeping their eyes on a plan to open a quarry in Tuolumne County.

The focus of their concern: the trains that would haul the crushed rock from the open-pit mine and go through their cities.

The Sierra Northern trains could be as long as two-thirds of mile and rumble through the cities at 10 mph.

Officials say the trains could slice their cities in half and back up traffic at railroad crossings, delay fire engines responding to 911 calls, and hold up buses and parents taking kids to and from school.

“You have traffic impacts, noise impacts,” said J.D. Hightower, Riverbank’s development services director. “A train approximately a mile long, I don’t know how you coordinate that with the traffic.”

The Tuolumne County Planning Commission endorsed the project last month. The project is scheduled to appear before the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors on March 15 for approval.

Officials from Riverbank and Oakdale plan to attend the meeting as well as Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O’Brien, whose district includes the two cities. The Riverbank school district will send a representative.

“We understand the value of this project,” Riverbank Unified School District Superintendent Ken Geisick said. “But our concern is how we move students through town. This would stop north-south traffic. We already have a lot of delays with the other (train) lines that go through.”

Oakdale Superintendent Fred Rich declined to comment until he learns more about the project.

Riverbank officials have sent a letter to the Tuolumne County supervisors, asking them to delay their decision so city officials can have more time to compile a list of their concerns and how they can be addressed.

Oakdale also plans to send a letter.

City officials just recently learned about the project. Tuolumne County notified Stanislaus County about two years ago but did not notify Riverbank and Oakdale.

“It’s just the total lack of information by Tuolumne County,” said Hightower, the Riverbank official. “Without the information about exactly what is going to happen, we have no clue.”

The Cooperstown Quarry is proposed for 135 acres along the Stanislaus County line, about nine miles south of Knights Ferry. The site would consist of an open-pit mine and processing plant, and would employ 30 to 40 workers. The railroad also would hire workers.

“This creates jobs for the railroad and quarry, and provides rocks needed for levies and road construction,” said Dave Magaw, president of Sierra Northern Railway, which is owned by the Sierra Railroad Co. “There is a tremendous benefit.”

The Sierra Railroad operates dinner trains out of Oakdale, makes other tourist excursions into the foothills and Sierra Northern is its freight operation.

If Tuolumne County approves the mining operation, it could open in about a year.

But that depends on how long it takes the mine operator to complete the approximately 100 conditions the county has imposed to lessen the mine’s impact, said planning consultant Bruce Baracco. He is working with property owners Jack and Tricia Gardella and mine operator Resource Exploration Drilling LLC on the project.

Baracco said the conditions include preserving land for open space and planting 10 acorns for every oak tree that is removed. The site would be mined in phases, and as the mine operators finish a phase, they would restore it to grazing land as they mine the next phase.

The Tuolumne Board of Supervisors could still modify the conditions.

“We think it’s a pretty comprehensive package in terms of insuring there are no affects from the project,” Baracco said.

The miners could remove as much as 56 million tons of crushed rock over the mine’s 75-year life. The crushed rock would be used for railroad ballast, asphalt and concrete aggregate, and other construction materials. The miners could use explosives as many as 33 times a year, and the trains could make 20 round-trips per week, according to Tuolumne County documents.

Riverbank officials point to Tuolumne County documents that say the trains can be from 30 cars to 90 cars in length. But Sierra NorthernCQ General Manager Larry Ingold said the railroad is basing its calculations on trains of 60 cars.

He said a 60-car train is about two-thirds of a mile long and would take about four minutes to clear a railroad crossing traveling at 10 mph. Ingold said it’s too early to know how many trains and how many cars per train, but he doubts the trains will exceed 60 cars and could be smaller.

Mine operations will start gradually.

“We are not going full board,” said Patrick Embree, Resource Exploration Drilling’s managing member. “We’ve got 75 years, we’re hoping for 75 years, to get this ramped up. In the beginning, it could be a train a week, a train a month.”

Mining and railroad officials said shipping the crushed rock by rail produces less pollution than using tractor-trailers. Ingold said one rail car is the equivalent of four big rigs.

In Oakdale, the trains would cross Highway 120 near J Street by ConAgra Foods. They also would pass Oak Valley Hospital, and The Vintage and Bridle Ridge subdivisions before crossing at Crane Road.

In Riverbank, the trains would follow Patterson Road through downtown, crossing at Claus Road by the high school and then at Eighth, Third and First streets, a distance of less than a mile.

Once in Oakdale and Riverbank, Union Pacific or Burlington Northern Sante Fe trains would haul the rail cars to their final destination.

Sierra Northern now runs two trains a day between Oakdale and Riverbank, Ingold said. Trains are a fact of life in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, but that doesn’t mean residents always like them.

A developer’s proposal to open a business park called West Park and ship goods by rail through Patterson has city officials there alarmed. Patterson fears trains will tie up traffic. But Cooperstown Quarry and Sierra Northern officials are trying to allay concerns.

Baracco and Ingold met with Riverbank officials last week. The two will meet with Oakdale officials Thursday.

Baracco said the mine and railroad are willing to work on the timing of the trains to lessen their impact on the two cities and the railroad is willing to help the cities apply for federal funding to upgrade railroad crossings.

“We are trying to be proactive,” he said.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at 578-2316.

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