Not in My Backyard: 94-Year-Old Retired Marine Corps Colonel Fights Proposed Strip Mine

Fraser West, grandfather of singer-songwriter Alison Sudol, is desperately trying to stop the demolition of the land he holds dear.

Sal holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

Ninety-four year-old Fraser West, a former colonel in the United States Marine Corps, who earned a Purple Heart in World War II, is a candid breath of fresh air, a vestige of a bygone, plainspoken era when answering a question meant saying exactly what was on your mind.

So when he bluntly tells you he’s “slowed down” over the past few years, you want to believe him. Still, the frank self-assessment is a stretch. After all, it was just two years ago—when he was well into his tenth decade of life—that West still regularly rode his horse up Newman Ridge, a two-mile-long, 475-foot high morsel of undeveloped land tucked into Amador County, California.

The Colonel’s preferred riding time was “the early morning, after dawn” when the air was cool. He’d saddle his mare, yank her reins, gallop past his 200 grazing cattle, open the gate to neighboring Newman Ranch, and be on his way. He’d cross Dry Creek and Sutter Creek. He’d pass vernal pools and seasonal wetlands. With uncut wild grass tickling his worn cowboy boots, he’d navigate steep ravines, patches of gnarled oak trees, and canted rock outcroppings. At the summit, he’d lift up his Stetson and gaze out at the Ione Valley. Maybe he’d get lucky and catch a glimpse of a bald eagle or hear the cry of a Swainson’s hawk wafting from an unseen nest. Almost always, though, West’s eyes would be drawn to his modest ranch home, situated in the foothills below, where he moved in 1973 with his wife, Teddy, now 88, and his autistic son, Bill, now 62.

“It’s beautiful ranching country, the peace and quiet of this land is…you can’t put a price on it,” says Colonel West.                                                  

If a group of investors from California’s Silicon Valley exert their will, Newman Ridge will be blown—dynamited—to ash, dust, and rock sometime in 2013.

These investors—Bill Bunce, his development partner John Telischak, and San Francisco-based Farallon Capital Management—are seeking Amador County’s approval to build two related projects on the land.

The first is Newman Ridge Quarry, a 278-acre strip mine that would be located just 50 feet from West’s back porch. The second is Newman Ridge North, a 113-acre hot asphalt and concrete recycling plant that would be built a scant three quarters of a mile from West’s property line. The business plan calls for the rock and gravel that’s mined at the quarry to be trucked across the street to the asphalt plant, where it would be processed.

“The audacity they have to propose this project,” says West.

Ione Valley Land, Air, and Water Defense Alliance (LAWDA), an environmental group founded and run by West’s daughter Sondra West-Moore, 57, argues that the projects could combine to blow cancer-causing toxins through the valley.

The Amador County Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on October 9 at 10:30 a.m. in Jackson, California, at which time there will be a vote for both the strip mine and asphalt plant.

A trail on Newman Ridge. (Photo: Courtesy of Sondra West-Moore)

Warning: Strip Mines

The approval of a land development deal in Amador County requires that an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) be written. In this case, the County Planning Commission farmed out the task to a consulting firm, Raney Associates, which Bunce and his investors then paid to draft the EIR.

According to legal documents obtained by TakePart, the initial EIR “failed to mitigate significant [environmental] impacts.”

West-Moore calls the EIR “a mess, full of half-truths.”

Several state agencies, including the California Department of Transportation, the Department of Conservation’s Office of Mine Reclamation, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, and the California Department of Fish and Game, have expressed concerns with the EIR.

Chief among the problems are cancer-causing toxins that would be unleashed into the air over Ione Valley.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cuts right to the bone when assessing asphalt processing plants: they are “major sources of hazardous air pollutants” that could “cause cancer, central nervous system problems, liver damage, respiratory problems and skin irritation.”

“To think what that plant would do to the air my wife and I breathe,” says West, before trailing off, unable or unwilling to finish his thought.

Earlier this year, West’s attorney, Douglas Carstens of Chatten-Brown & Carstens, used the Public Records Act to petition the county for any documents pertaining to air quality studies that had been done on the project.

The results are shocking.

In a memo dated February 12, 2012, Ray Kapahi, a private air quality consultant employed by Air Permitting Specialists, wrote to Mike Boitano, the Air Pollution Control Officer for the Amador Air District, that the EIR “would not stand up to legal scrutiny.”

Kapahi goes on to write that the proposed project would “lead to a cancer risk at nearby homes in the range of 10 to 18 cancers per million,” adding that “this level of risk is considered significant.”

In a summary analysis, Kapahi wrote: “Adverse health impacts would be most significant at locations within 1 to 2 miles from the project sites.”

Colonel West still firmly on his saddle.

(Photo: Courtesy of Sondra West-Moore)

To reiterate: Colonel West’s ranch house—a home he’s lived in since 1973, a home he shares with his wife of 67 years, a home in which they continue to care for their handicapped son—is located a stone’s throw from the base of the proposed strip mine.

“When I think about it, I get sick to my stomach,” says West-Moore, fighting back tears.

“My mom has become obsessed with fighting this,” says Alison Sudol, the singer-songwriter of A Fine Frenzy. Sudol is West-Moore’s daughter and West’s granddaughter.

“In a funny way, I feel it’s sort of fated that they chose my grandfather and my mom to mess with because they’re such powerful forces,” says Sudol. “They’ve almost single-handedly shone a light on this tragedy.”

To date, Bunce and his investors have not applied for a permit from the Amador Air District.

The application—or lack thereof—is the key piece of the puzzle for the County Supervisors. Without it, how can they in good conscience rely on the flawed EIR, which was certified by the Planning Commissioners on August 28? And without a factually correct EIR, how can the County Supervisors in turn vote yes on the project?

Cancer-causing air particulate isn’t the only cause for alarm—there’s also noise pollution, unwelcomed traffic, and even the potential of asbestos.

“You can feel dynamite blasts from a quarry from a mile away and my parents live, what, 25 feet? They’d feel it all,” says West-Moore. The decibel levels are equal to a commercial jetliner at 200 feet.

If the project moves forward, as many as 200 haul trucks per day will be “moving up and down a two-lane country road that was never designed for such traffic,” says West-Moore. Caltrans is on record in opposing the project.

Naturally occurring asbestos is also cause for trepidation. If it is discovered on the project site, mining operations would have to be shut down, as has occurred with three mines in neighboring El Dorado County.

Jeff Light, a University of California-Davis educated geologist hired by West to evaluate the mining operations, says that the level of investigation in the EIR documents is “inadequate” to clear the Newman Ridge Quarry site from the potential of containing naturally occurring asbestos, “and do not meet regulatory, professional, and industry standards.”

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Bunce and the other investors contend that the project will bring 60 new jobs to the county.

But according to estimates from the State of California’s Department of Geology, the demand for mining aggregate—a big bucket category of particulate material used in construction that includes sand and gravel—for Amador County and its 38,091 citizens is roughly 270,000 tons per year.

Other local quarries already in operation produce between 300,000 and 500,000 tons of aggregate per year.

“I’ve asked some industry experts. ‘How many jobs will come from a quarry like this?’ says West-Moore. “And the number that keeps coming back is 8, not 60—just 8. The business justification for this project is just completely skewed.”

Then there’s the matter of the type of material, green rock aggregate, to be mined at Newman Ridge Quarry. “It’s one of the most expensive rocks to crush because it’s so hard and therefore requires the most expensive equipment,” says West-Moore. “What these developers want to do is mine the valuable rocks on the surface, where there is oil in the rock—basically they want to strip mine the top and then probably close it all down. In other words, ruin the environment, ruin the ridge, and then go out of business.”

Attempts to reach Bunce went unreturned.

Silence on Dutschke Road

The plan wasn’t always to build the Edwin Center in the location currently up for a vote on Tuesday, October 9.

After West’s neighbors, those generational-residents with long-standing homes on Dutschke Road, objected to the original location, Bunce renamed the plant “Edwin Center North” and pledged to move it 120 feet down the road.

In exchange for those measly 40 yards, the neighbors—12 people spread across three families—signed a document agreeing to “not oppose, in writing, by oral comment or otherwise” the project.

“Obviously 120 feet will not make any difference when it comes to the air,” says West-Moore.

Why then did 12 people sign away their right to publically display the 80 pages of environmental objections that they had drawn up?

“I think they panicked, I think they got scared,” says West-Moore. While she declined to identify the woman by name, West-Moore did say that one of her parent’s neighbors, “a good friend of my mother’s,” regrets signing it. “My mother has visited this woman, sat in her kitchen and watched this woman cry and put her head in her hands” at the thought of the project.

“Bunce has 4 percent of the community’s support—4 percent!” says West-Moore, venting exasperation.

West-Moore’s conservation instincts grew out of a late-blooming Erin Brockovich gene, only in her case one of the families in need of protection is her very own.

“We’re talking about my 94-year-old father and my 88-year old mother here,” she tells me, before choking up. “You have to understand that this man, my sweet father, has been parenting my brother at home for 62 years,” she says. “He was going to be promoted to General and move to the Pentagon, but they didn’t have special needs schools in Washington, DC. So he gave up the military for my brother, bought this ranch, and moved out to the middle of nowhere so they could care for him safely.”

She is quick to cite a statistic that property values drop by 49 percent when an asphalt plant breaks ground within two miles of a home.

“My brother’s in very good health, he could live a very long time—past anyone of us,” says West-Moore. “Any hope I had in re-selling that ranch as a ranch to make sure my brother is taken care of properly would be gone,” she says, before again welling up.

“We’re Going to Win”

On September 15, Sudol signed an on-line petition that her mother, West-Moore, created to oppose the project.

The petition generates a response, which is then automatically emailed to Amador County Supervisor Richard Forster, who represents the district that includes Newman Ridge.

One day later, September 16, Forster replied to Sudol’s signature, writing: “I appreciate the responses. I will tell you that it means much more to us hick folks in Amador County when the negative responses come locally—not from Sunland or North Hollywood. To be honest, most of you folks don’t have a dog in this fight.”

Sudol might not be an Ione Valley resident, but her grandmother Teddy is. Her Uncle Bill is. Her grandfather Fraser is.

On August 28, at a county Planning Commission meeting at which the EIR was eventually certified by a single vote, Colonel West stood up from his second row seat. “He was wearing his Purple Heart hat,” says West-Moore. Relying on his cane, he slowly but surely made his way to the podium. He looked over the faces of the packed room, which included 40 out of work miners that West-Moore says Bunce had shipped in from other counties.

“My father talked about his time fighting in Guam and China and how experience counts for something—and how his experience has taught him that this project is just plain wrong,” says West-Moore.

The County Commissioners curtly thanked him for his service, essentially dismissing West back to his seat.

Asked if he was offended by this obvious slight, West redirected the question in typical selfless Marine style.

“It’s not about me, it’s about the future of this valley, the future we want to leave our kids,” he says. “It’s not only my family, its our fellow ranchers as well,” says West.

If, as she expects, the County Supervisors vote to affirm the project on October 9, West-Moore says she and her father will immediately file an injunction, which would tie the project up in court for quite some time.

“First I was emotional, but now I’m hardened and steel-wise that we’re going to win this no matter how long it takes,” says West.

He pauses, clears his throats, and repeats himself, almost as if giving an order, something he did countless times during his decorated 24-year military career. “We’re going to win, we’re going to win, we’re going to win.”

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