by Jim Hight

Last summer gravel miners skimmed and hauled more than a million tons of gravel from Humboldt County river bars. Most of these mining operations caused little or no harm to river ecology, according to a report issued last month by the County of Humboldt Extraction Review Team (CHERT).

But the five scientists who serve on CHERT reported that a few gravel operators violated mining protocols and left river bars in bad shape for migrating fish and other river critters. Now one or more of these operators are trying to make an end run around the CHERT's scientific review.

According to sources who requested anonymity, Bill O'Neill, owner of Arcata Readi Mix, and others are reportedly attempting to establish an alternative to CHERT or to replace CHERT altogether.

Sources say that O'Neill -- whose company was criticized for extracting excess gravel and failing to submit reports on the river bar's condition -- and attorney Bill Davis have been lobbying the Army Corps of Engineers in San Francisco for permission to hire their own consultants to review O'Neill's operations.

In a interview last month, Army Corps Project Manager Michael Lamprecht confirmed that due to "political turmoil" the Corps may indeed scrap CHERT and create a new system in which "miners will hire a third-party to review their cross-sections."

O'Neill declined to comment on CHERT's critique of his 1997 gravel mining.

"We're reviewing it now," he said. He also denied that he was seeking an individual permit. (Humboldt County gravel miners currently operate under a joint "letter of permission" from the Army Corps.)

Davis, formerly of Eureka, did not return a telephone call to his office in San Francisco.

Rumors of O'Neill's maneuvers circulated among gravel miners at a Feb. 5 meeting held to review the CHERT report. The operators are concerned that a change in the scientific review process would lead to environmental lawsuits, legal conflicts between gravel operators and even a one-year shutdown of the gravel mining industry -- an event that would cripple local construction and road repairs.

The CHERT process was set up in 1992 to avoid just such a shutdown on the Mad River. Environmental groups were poised to sue the operators and the county over unregulated mining. The California Department of Transportation and the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District were alarmed over degradation of the river bed near bridges and water intakes.

The county did an environmental impact report on the Mad and lower Eel and Van Duzen rivers, cut the miners back to about 60 percent of their traditional gravel extraction volume, and created CHERT, the scientific team paid directly by fees collected from the gravel operators to review mining plans and impacts each year.

CHERT was originally authorized to oversee only the Mad and Eel river operations, however its duties were later expanded under the Corps' letter of permission to include all county rivers. CHERT reviews gravel operations for the county Planning Department and a host of state and federal agencies. Federal biologists, for instance, look to CHERT to ensure that mining operations do not harm coho salmon, now listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

For all these reasons, many gravel operators have come to support the CHERT process, albeit grudgingly.

"I fought this concept from the start ... but I've done what I'm supposed to do and I have no problem with it," said Tom Bess, a Van Duzen River gravel miner. "I want to see the county renew CHERT's contract.

"We're able to operate under the guidelines of a group review for coho salmon. ... As a small operator, I could not afford to hire individual (biologists) to review my own small gravel operation for compliance with the Endangered Species Act," Bess said.

CHERT also takes a hand in apportioning the allowable gravel "take" among the miners up and down each river.

"We all want a level playing field," said Ken Drake, manager of Drake Materials, which operates on the Eel River near Fernbridge. "The CHERT report allows us to see how we're doing in relation to each other."

A wild card in the gravel mining deck is Victor Guynup, owner of Guynup Enterprises, which extracts gravel on the Mad River upstream of Blue Lake. Guynup declined to be interviewed for this report. However, last year he told The Journal he was instrumental in the forced resignation of former Planning Director Tom Conlon (Journal, May 1997) because he viewed him as unfriendly to gravel operators and other businesses.

Guynup's 1997 gravel operations received low marks from CHERT. He left his gravel bars with "undulating topography and several closed depressions" -- features that could harm migrating salmon and steelhead.

"We need the mining operations to leave a confined channel so when fall flows come up, the fish have a clear channel," said CHERT Chairman Randy Klein. Without a confined channel, the river water will spread over a wide surface with the first autumn rains. When flows recede the water may settle in ponds, stranding fish.

CHERT also found broken asphalt, concrete and trash from Guynup's riverside asphalt plant in the river channel and on its banks.

Guynup has recently sought to accelerate his river mining by excavating a "high flow" channel through the meanders in his river reach. He's been advised by CHERT that not only would this idea probably not work, but that he would have to get a "river engineering" permit directly from the Corps of Engineers for such an activity.

The hand will be played out in the coming months. The Corps of Engineers holds its "Gravel Week" meetings with miners and state and county agencies in March. Depending on what happens there, the agency may decide to replace CHERT with an oversight procedure more like that reportedly being sought by O'Neill.

And in April the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors will be considering a contract authorizing CHERT to continue monitoring gravel mining.

For more information, contact the Army Corps of Engineers, 443-0855, or Humboldt County Public Works Department, 445-7491.

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