Feature: Rocky road

By Tom Gogola

It’s a hot and dusty day in Skyline Wilderness Park in the southern stretches of the city of Napa. You can hear the not-too-distant sounds of heavy equipment at the adjacent Syar Industries quarry operation below as little lizards silently scamper along a winding trail. There are signs along a stone wall at the edge of the park that warn of dangerous and man-made cliffs, and in various places along the trail, there’s evidence of the quarry operation—an old pit is clearly visible with a big pool of bluish-tinged water at the bottom of it.

As one strolls along the park trails through the tall dry grasses and shade trees, numerous areas where Syar has mined stone deposits for use in roadbuilding and other construction projects in Napa and around the Bay Area become visible. There’s a rise that eventually comes into view called the Pasini Knoll, which provides a visual buffer between much of the ongoing quarrying activities and the park.

That knoll is at the heart of the local battle over a controversial expansion of the Napa Quarry. As things stand now, the Pasini Knoll will be mined—eventually—as part of a long-in-the-making agreement struck by Syar and Napa County in July to expand the quarry operation, to the dismay of local anti-expansion activists who have argued that, at the very least, the Pasini Knoll must remain as a visual buffer between the park and the quarry.

Opponents have argued against the necessity of the expansion and its environmental impacts for years, and continue to say that Napa County does not need what they insist is an inferior product for roadbuilding. “We need a local source of aggregate,” acknowledges Kathy Felch, a leading opponent of the expansion, referring to the roadbuilding material that’s drawn from quarries. “But we don’t want or need Syar Napa aggregate for road building. It is crummy product.”

That’s not an opinion shared by Syar, which has emphasized the abundance of the higher-quality basalt at the Pasini Knoll in its public comments. At a late April hearing before the Napa County supervisors, Syar staff counsel Michael Corrigan acknowledged that the Pasini Knoll expansion “has become the most controversial part of our project … and we did not make this decision lightly. As you can see from this process, if we had stayed within our existing footprint, we would have been much better off. We would not have been here today, but we are running out of basalt. And we need to find a new source, and Pasini is the new source.”

Syar Industries and its well-organized opponents have squared off for years over the quarry expansion, with anti-expansion advocates hammering away at diminished air quality, childhood cancer rates, water-quality impacts and keeping Skyline Wilderness Park out of the sightlines—and dust clouds—of the long-standing quarry operation. For every piece of anti-expansion science opponents cited, Syar had a response—as a 755-page environmental review demonstrates in exquisite, if numbing, detail.

In the end, the Napa supervisors voted 4–1 to grant a 35-year permit extension to Syar and green-lit a 106-acre expansion of the operation that will allow the company to extract over 1 million tons of the aggregate from the quarry over the duration of its lease. The entire expansion project, which was whittled down from 291 acres, came down to accessing the Pasini Knoll, which had previously been purchased from a private owner by the Syar family.

The company has been extracting rock with what’s known as an “indeterminate use” permit since 2008, and told locals that a new permit is critical if Syar is to stay in business in Napa, where the quarry has been in operation since 1926.

Getting a new permit with a time frame attached to it is ultimately a victory for oversight efforts at the quarry, says supervisor Brad Wagenknecht. His was the lone “no” vote on the proposed expansion, but he only wanted to see a smaller footprint for Syar, about 70 acres, with a dedicated buffer zone between the knoll and the park within Syar’s property. He delivered his vote with some reluctance. “I’ve been an appreciator of Syar as a corporate citizen,” he says, “so that always makes it more difficult.”

Syar has claimed that the Napa Quarry would have run out of roadbuilding material within a year unless the new permit was secured. Opponents decried that public posturing as a scare tactic designed to leverage a quick and favorable outcome for Syar. It wasn’t quick, but it was ultimately favorable.

The Napa site is one of nine quarries Syar operates throughout the state, and with an imminent new lease comes new promises for locals from the community-friendly, family-owned business: More recycling of old roadbed materials into new roadbuilding product at the plant; 10 to 20 new middle-class jobs for locals at the quarry; an asphalt-production plant on the grounds to help pave gnarly Napa roads; and assurances from the company that the overall footprint of the expansion will be limited, and the resultant air pollution from mining contained.

Another representative of Syar, Tom Adams, addressed anti-expansionists’ concerns at the April hearing, the second-to-last meeting before the supervisors agreed to a revised plan that’s focused on the Pasini Knoll. Adams checked off numerous boxes that he says showed Syar’s commitment to a clean and productive operation.

“We are reducing [greenhouse gas] impacts,” he said at the hearing. “We are reducing truck trips by 300 per day. We reduced the footprint. We retained the Skyline Wilderness Park trails. We increased the setbacks from the park. We included tree planting. We improved the mitigation measures … ”

Syar’s optimism about its operation and the urgency to expand is not shared by all in the community. Felch is a lawyer in Napa whose organization, Stop Syar Expansion, joined with the Skyline Park Citizens Association in a one-two punch against the expansion.

Stop Syar has put the emphasis on its opposition squarely with the locals who live around the quarry and their exposure to the silicate particulate matter that is part of any quarry operation. The environmental impact report goes into all the dusty details of the debate over diseases wrought by airborne particulates—but when the dust finally did settle, Syar got what it wanted: Access to the Pasini Knoll.

Wagenknecht notes that the concerns over silicate exposure is not so much an issue for the surrounding community as it is for the Syar quarry workers who operate under guidelines set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The bigger concern for residents, he says, citing the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, “is not so much the silicate. The air district said the issue for neighbors in the community, as they see it, is the diesel” from Syar trucks coming in and out of the facility.

Felch doesn’t want the additional diesel fumes, and she doesn’t want the silicate exposure, either, or the sound of beeping trucks backing up in the quarry. She and her husband live across from Skyline Wilderness Park on Imola Avenue, in a homestead replete with goats and dogs and fruit trees and a big honking pet goose. Her property is located just outside Napa’s urban-rural boundary, on the rural side.

Felch points up Imola Avenue to the boundary beyond a fence that’s penning in some other goats where there’s a mostly Latino neighborhood. There’s a nearby children’s center as well, and one of the issues raised

With the expansion granted, Syar Industries will be allowed to extract more than 1 million tons of aggregate from the quarry over the duration of its lease. Photo courtesy of Syar Industries.

by anti-Syar activists is the high rate of childhood cancer in the county—the highest in the state. Yet the California Cancer Registry studied the spiking cancer rates and determined its cause was unknown—good news for Syar.

Despite the favorable vote for Syar, Felch says that the supervisors’ recent approval is by no means the last chapter in the expansion fight. Similar fights over expansionist-minded quarry operations in the North Bay have ended up in state court, and every indication is that this one’s headed there too. “We have the resources to sue them and see the lawsuit through,” she says. “It’s unfortunate that we have to do that.”

Along the way to this final resolution—all that remains after the supervisors’ vote last month, says Felch, is a legal OK from the Napa County Counsel’s office—the battle over Syar’s expansion has also highlighted a generalized concern over the fate of Skyline Wilderness Park.

The park, which covers over 850 acres and features some 25 miles of winding trails, along with rattlesnakes and wild pigs, is owned by the state of California and leased by Napa County.

The lease extends through 2030, and in 2009 county leaders voted to put a zoning overlay over the park that outlawed any local use other than recreational. But in a little-reported-on 2013 geological survey, the state highlighted 540 acres in and adjacent to the park as a prime location for high-quality aggregate for roadbuilding and construction.

State officials have insisted that they have no particular design on Skyline Wilderness Park. Syar Industries’ lawyers and spokespersons have said the same thing: They support the county lease and zoning overlay, as it gives them a built-in buffer between the mining area and residential areas.

Yet the storyline over the fate of the park took a turn for the weirdly coincidental late last October. On Oct. 21, the Napa County Planning Commission gave its OK to the Syar expansion proposal, which kicked the battle over to the supervisors for a series of public hearings and the eventual vote in July. The very next day the state Department of General Services sent a letter to Napa County demanding that it remove the zoning overlay that banned commercial uses in the park. This raised big alarms with the Syar opponents who saw it as a possible deal in the making that could eventually green-light mining in the park, but Wagenknecht sees it differently.

In short, the state Legislature has voted three times in favor of selling the park to the county; it was vetoed twice, and the third time got hung up on a fight between the state and the county over the proper appraised value of the land, which has yet to be determined in an ongoing state-county squabble over its value.

“The real threat to Skyline Park is not Syar but the state not being willing to deal with the county,” he says.

The state told the Napa Valley Register that the timing of the demand was purely coincidental, and Syar officials, for their part, reiterated their support for the county plan to buy the park, given the built-in buffer zone. But under the new permit and expansion plan, the buffer is going to be eroded over time if Syar prevails and starts taking down the Pasini Knoll to feed local aggregate into roadbuilding and other construction projects—which will include building materials for a new, just-approved $20 million jail in Napa County, just off the Syar land, that the state is paying for.

And there are other local projects on the horizon or in the works that are dependent on a supply of local aggregate, and by a continuing boomtown economy. “The city of Napa will be doing more roads, more streets, and all the other places around the county will be doing more—and you have a couple of hotels, a jail being built, the city of Napa looking at a new city hall,” says Wagenknecht. “Those are things that are going to be built, and if the economy stays hot for the next couple of years, that can happen over a few years.”

The Napa Quarry is located in what state geologists refer to as the North San Francisco Bay P-C Region—a zone that was expanded by the state. In 2013, the California Geological Survey, which operates under the aegis of the California Department of Conservation, issued a little-noticed update to its previous study of aggregate resources in the North Bay, known as SR 205. The survey was undertaken to ensure that the North Bay region has an identifiable 50-year supply of aggregate materials on hand—enough to build roads and infrastructure, and to have contingencies for natural disasters such as earthquakes, where the cleanup and rebuild is always dependent on lots of concrete and asphalt.

The North San Francisco Bay P-C Region has historically encompassed a smaller footprint within the North Bay as a whole, in deference to prized open space. But in updating the report, state geologists cracked the entire North Bay open and added 2,660 square miles of potentially minable land, which included parts of the state that were previously off-limits to quarry mining, such as West Marin County. The report also identified new areas along the Russian River that could be mined for aggregate materials in the future; Syar already operates a gravel-mining operation on the Russian River.

All told, the updated geologists’ report represented a six-fold increase in the classification of lands identified in the previous report, and also identified land within Syar’s Napa Quarry and the adjoining parkland as containing a mother lode of minable materials.

The geological survey has routinely been cited by Syar Industries in public hearings as they’ve fought activists’ attempts to scuttle their expansion plans on environmental, aesthetic and pragmatic grounds.

The state geologists’ study wasn’t simply some geeky geologists identifying where the good lodes of aggregate material are located. In updating the report, the state reclassified several areas for potential mining under a process that’s known as “designation.” Among other findings, the report notes that the amount of aggregate materials used in roadbuilding and construction in the North Bay was 9 percent higher than the previous 50-year survey estimated it would be. It also noted that some areas that had been previously identified as aggregate mining sites have been paved over and rendered un-minable in recent years, as the North Bay has seen its population centers spill out into surrounding regions.

There’s a basic agreed-upon principle at play here, which is that it’s generally a good idea to have a locally based quarry. The idea is pretty simple: Stone and gravel and sand are heavy, low-value materials whose per-ton price is driven up exponentially for every mile a truck has to drive with a load of the material (the stuff costs around $12 and $15 a ton, according to a scan of industry documents and reports).

But quarry operators are still subject to scrutiny and lawsuits. Syar has faced criticism over the quality of the air in and around its operations, and was threatened with a lawsuit over groundwater contamination in 2013 by San Francisco Baykeeper for violations of the Clean Water Act at its Lake Herman Quarry in Vallejo. Syar agreed to self-monitor its runoff as a condition of not being sued in federal court.

In 2007, several of its facilities were raided by the FBI over charges that remain unclear but appear to be related to requirements that it provide the highest quality aggregate material for roadbuilding projects done by the state and subsidized by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Court records pertaining to those raids have been sealed, and a regional FBI spokesman would not shed any light on those raids and the rationale for them.

The FBI raid coincided with the emergent Great Recession, and Syar was seeing demand for its product dry up. There’s a reason the roads in the North Bay have been a mess for years. The stone, rock and gravel industry took a huge hit in the 2008 recession and is only now making a comeback as the economy recovers.

The question raised by anti-expansionists is whether this particular quarry operation is necessary to Napa County. Syar says that indeed it is. In documents and in testimony before the Napa supervisors, Syar Industries notes that 78 percent of the product mined from the Napa Quarry stays in the county. The rest is shipped out to Marin and Sonoma counties. According to state geologists, about 10 percent of the aggregate used in the North Bay is imported from British Columbia. One undercurrent of the fight over the Napa Quarry expansion has been the activists’ focus on the quality of the aggregate produced there.

The state geologist’s 2013 report says the grade of material found in Napa is a high-quality material acceptable to state roadbuilding standards. But Steven Booth, a key local Napa figure in the anti-expansion efforts, says that while the Napa product is high-quality, the quality is higher from the nearby Lake Herman Quarry because, as he puts it, the material in Napa is more of an “agglomerate” of material whereas Lake Herman provides a cleaner and less mixed product when it is extracted.

Booth pushed for information on Syar’s business around the county, he says, and filed public records requests and talked with numerous officials around the county. He says they all tell him the same thing: Lake Herman is the better source for material used in road projects in Napa cities like Calistoga and St. Helena.

“Very definitely at Napa Quarry the basalt is in veins,” he says, “and it is interspersed with other material.”

Wagenknecht says the activists’ emphasis on the quality of the Napa product is news to him, even as he credits the “very active group looking at this very closely” for helping inform the overall expansion plan that was ultimately hammered out. “I hadn’t heard that,” he says of Booth’s findings and claims. “We did have one public works director from the city of Napa that said they needed the product, and that’s the sum total of public input that we had on that.”

Critics also point out that, even as Syar has said it’s going to run out of basalt within a year and must have access to the Pasini Knoll in order to keep the aggregate flowing, the company has also said it wouldn’t even be mining the knoll for several years, at a minimum. In the final hearing before the Napa supervisors, on July 11, Corrigan told the supervisors that the timetable for mining the knoll was contingent upon market demand—which appears to be gaining steam.

“I’m not anticipating getting close to the park for 10 or 15 years,” he said, “or even significantly into the Pasini Knoll for 10 or 15 years. Over the 35 years, we would be getting close to the edge of the mining area if the demand remains heavy. If not, we would be farther away.”

Syar Industries regularly wins good citizenship awards and other honorifics through the efforts of family scion Jim Syar and the Syar Foundation, which won the statewide 2015 award for good citizenship from the Center for Volunteer & Nonprofit Leadership. True to the North Bay way of doing business, the family also grows grapes along the Russian River, and has made numerous campaign donations to local politicians over the years. The family also owned a golf course in Vacaville that they abruptly shut down this February, citing a diminished interest in the sport while lamenting the layoff of dozens of workers.

Syar also has the friendly editorial ear of the local paper of record, the Napa Valley Register. Last year, the paper produced an op-ed in support of the Syar expansion, and the text of the op-ed—which, anti-expansion activists like to point out, ran the same day Syar took out a full-page advertisement in the paper—highlighted that it was unusual for them to weigh in on a local issue as they wholeheartedly endorsed the expansion, while noting the activists’ “howls” of protest.

Anti-expansion activists can claim a limited victory over Syar’s original proposal. As the battle ground on for eight years, Syar’s proposal was whittled down several times, starting at a 291-acre proposal before they finally agreed to the 106-acre deal—which is another way of saying that Syar kept its eye on the prize all along: Pasini Knoll. As Tom Adams noted in April before the supervisors, “Pasini—that’s the whole, the only reason Syar applied for the permit was to get access to Pasini. So without that, the project doesn’t work so well.”

Nor does Measure T, a local sales-tax referendum that voters agreed on in 2014 that will see a huge push in roadbuilding projects in Napa County beginning in 2017—just in time for the new Syar permit. As anti-expansionists prepare to bring their fight to court, they face a massive, taxpayer-supported plan dedicated to improving the local infrastructure.

“We know that Measure T is $30 million for road maintenance and resurfacing only throughout Napa County,” noted Corrigan at the April meeting before the supervisors, and Wagenknecht speaks of the “pent-up demand” for aggregate as Measure T money starts flowing.

With that kind of built-in demand on the immediate horizon, it seems that no matter how you crush the stones and crunch the numbers, Syar Industries will hit pay dirt on the Pasini Knoll.