SONORA -- The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors approved a settlement Tuesday that ends Riverbank's legal challenge to a proposed open-pit mine that would ship millions of tons of rock by railroad through its downtown.
Riverbank will receive as much as $3.92 million in the coming decades based on a fee of 7 cents for every ton of mined rock shipped through the city. The mine is projected to remove 56 million tons of material over its 75-year life.
All of the settlement costs will be borne by the mine operators, Resources Exploration Drilling LLC, but that didn't stop board Chairman Richard Pland and Supervisor Randy Hanvelt from accusing Riverbank of extortion.
"This is opportunism, legal extortion and tyranny," Hanvelt said. "
That's what this is."
But in the end, Pland and Hanvelt joined Supervisor Liz Bass in voting for the settlement. Supervisors Evan Royce and John Gray were not at Tuesday's meeting.
Riverbank City Manager Jill Anderson said she was "very sorry to hear Tuolumne County feels that way," but said the city had to resort to legal action to protect its residents from a project that will affect them for decades.
The Cooperstown Quarry is planned for 135 acres bordering Stanislaus County and about nine miles southeast of Knights Ferry. The mined rock would be used for road building, railroad ballast and other industrial uses.
Oakdale-based Sierra Northern Rail would haul the rock through Oakdale and Riverbank on long, slow-moving trains. In Oakdale, the trains would pass by ConAgra Foods, Oak Valley Hospital and residential neighborhoods.
But in Riverbank, the trains would split downtown in half. City officials fear the trains, which could be as long as 60 cars, would create traffic jams and delay fire engines, ambulances and other emergency responders. City officials also are concerned about safety hazards at the rail crossings.
Although the settlement lets Riverbank put the money in its general fund and gives it sole discretion over how it is used, the City Council has directed staff to create a special account to track the settlement funds and has said the money will be used to lessen the project's impact on the city.
Anderson said the settlement money won't come close to paying for all of the measures needed to lessen the project's impact and added it was a small price to pay for a project that primarily benefits Tuolumne County.
In addition to the 7-cent fee, the settlement's provisions include limiting the number of train trips, limiting whenever possible the hours trains can operate, increasing the testing of the mined rock for asbestos and increasing the number of acres set aside for wild land to make up for the loss of habitat and old-growth oak trees, from about 51 acres to nearly 88 acres.
The settlement states the mine operator will reimburse the legal costs of Riverbank and the two environmental groups that also filed a lawsuit against the project. They are $185,000 for Riverbank, and $87,525 for Friends of the Mother Lode and Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center. The amount of the legal costs also drew criticism from Hanvelt, who believes it is excessive.
Two lawsuits came quickly
Tuolumne County approved the Cooperstown Quarry in April 2011. In May 2011, Riverbank sued Tuolumne County, Resources Exploration Drilling, and Jack and Tricia Gardella, who own the 135 acres. Friends of the Mother Lode and Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center also sued.
Riverbank claimed that Tuolumne County failed to conduct the appropriate environmental review for a project of this scope. The city asked the courts to require the county to conduct an environmental impact report, a much more lengthy and expensive review than the county required.
The settlement has been approved by all parties, and both lawsuits will be dismissed.
David Temblador, attorney for Resources Exploration Drilling, said the settlement provides his client with "certainty" and lets it avoid the risk of taking the issue to trial.
He added that Resources Exploration Drilling is eager to move forward because it sees an opportunity for its product. He said the mine operator is securing the permits and permissions it needs to open the quarry.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2316.