Hammer Time

In Marina, Cemex mines sand with a dredge boat in a lagoon by the beach, shown here at high tide. It’s a practice mine operators have employed at the site since 1965.

It is not a threat. It is an order.

On May 16, the State Lands Commission sent a letter to Cemex – the Mexico-based cement manufacturing giant – informing the company that it must immediately submit a lease application to the commission to continue operations at its sand mine in Marina, or else shut the mine down.

Importantly, a lease application would be subject to review under the California Environmental Quality Act, which would most certainly require an environmental impact report, which is a costly and lengthy process that may show the mine’s impacts cannot be mitigated.

The Cemex mine is the last remaining coastal sand mine in the country, and scientists have argued for years it is primary reason southern Monterey Bay has the highest coastal erosion rate in California. Ed Thornton, a retired coastal engineer with the Naval Postgraduate School, has studied the operation for decades, and recently concluded the mine is causing an average coastal erosion rate of roughly 4 feet annually from the Salinas River to Monterey.

The fight to shut the mine down dates back to the mid-1980s, when the State Lands Commission shut down other sand mines in Sand City and Marina that used draglines – giant claws that scooped up sand from the surf zone. In shutting those mines down, SLC exercised its jurisdiction over public trust land seaward of the mean high tide line.

But the sand mine in Marina – which Cemex acquired in 2005 – has dodged regulation for decades because it exists in a man-made dredge pond above the mean high tide line.

The California Coastal Commission has been investigating the mine as a potential violation of the Coastal Act for the last seven-plus years, and after increasing pressure from activists, the agency threatened to issue a cease-and-desist order – citing several alleged violations of the Coastal Act – in March of 2016.

Cemex and the Coastal Commission have been in negotiations ever since, as the commission seeks to reach a resolution rather than risking litigation.

It is expected the agency will announce some form of action related to the mine in advance of its July 12-14 meeting, but for local activists, Tuesday’s letter gives added reason for optimism.

Broadly speaking, the letter argues the sand Cemex is mining is a state resource – an argument Thornton has long made – and because a former company operating at the site let their lease with the agency expire in 1969, Cemex has no lease, and is therefore in violation of state law.

“I feel vindicated,” Thornton says. “It will be an environmental triumph – the people won.”

In a May 16 statement, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, chair of the SLC board, says the mine is “a relic of an era that California and the nation rejected a long time ago, and it is past time that Cemex engage in a dialogue on the future of operations.”

Lisa Haage, chief of the Coastal Commission’s enforcement division, is happy to see SLC join the fray.

“This is one of our highest-priority cases, and we’ve been working on it very seriously,” she says, adding that local activism has been key in advancing the cause.

“Public involvement has been very helpful, and critical in getting us to where we are,” she says.

Cemex spokesman Walker Robinson says the company is reviewing the May 16 letter and could not comment on it, but adds, “the operation is a vested right and has all required entitlements.”

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