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Merced County broke environmental laws for mining firm, judge says

Merced County violated environmental law when it OK'd a local mining company's plan to expand, a judge has ruled.

Black Diamond Aggregates Inc., based in Modesto, applied in 2006 to expand its aggregate mine two miles outside Snelling. The company supplies rock and gravel for use in construction projects.

The Merced County Board of Supervisors approved Black Diamond's plans late that year. In January 2007, two environmental groups filed suit against the county over its decision.

The environmental groups, the San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center and Protect Our Water, argued that the county should have required Black Diamond to complete costly, thorough studies on how its expansion plan would affect the environment.

Instead, the county approved the project without those studies. The environmental groups claimed that violated the California Environmental Quality Act.

On Feb. 7, a Merced County judge sided with the environmental groups. "The court finds substantial evidence to support a fair argument that this project may have a significant effect on the environment," presiding judge John Kirihara wrote in the ruling, which the county received Monday.

Kirihara's ruling cancels the Black Diamond approval. To move forward with its expansion, the company will have to complete detailed studies examining how wider operations at the mine would affect wildlife, air quality, traffic and the area's water supply.

In their lawsuit, the groups claimed the county's decision to approve the expansion ignored letters from both the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressing concern over the project's effects on the environment. Kirihara agreed.

He also ordered the county to pay the environmental groups' attorney fees.

A Merced County spokesman, Mark Hendrickson, said the county respects the court's decision. He said the ruling won't mean any expense for taxpayers, as Black Diamond agreed in 2006 to pay legal expenses resulting from the expansion's approval.

An attorney for Black Diamond declined to comment on the ruling Tuesday.

Raptor Rescue Center attorney Marsha Burch said her client is pleased with the suit's outcome. "We really felt strongly that this required a much deeper look at the environmental impacts," Burch said. "When these folks are proposing an expansion, they're doing it because it will be lucrative for them. ... With that profit potential comes the responsibility to look out for the public."

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