by Judy Hodgson, Editor and Publisher

Gravel. It's not a very sexy topic. But last month there was a significant development in the ongoing story of the extraction of this important resource. (For those of you whose eyes just glazed over, remember we all need gravel to build houses and roads -- or heck, just to fill the potholes after all this rain.)

As you will read in Jim Hight's report, a group of five scientists released its report on the status of the health of the rivers in regard to gravel mining. The report resembles a complicated report card, listing all river activity, which companies are operating without significant river impacts and which need to improve.

But there is another drama unfolding about the fragile truce that exists between big and small gravel operators -- and the myriad of local, state and federal agencies that regulate them.

The gravel miners are allowed to operate because they have permission to do so from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Although the Corps is the lead agency, all the other regulatory entities need to be in agreement that the rivers are being protected. The National Marine Fisheries Service, for instance, relies on the group of local scientists (called the County of Humboldt Extraction Review Team, or CHERT) to provide unbiased information.

But apparently one or more of the large gravel operators, unhappy with the CHERT, wants to see a different system of environmental review, one where they hire their own scientist directly to review gravel operations.

Such a system would be similar to what developers now face in preparing an environmental assessment of a proposed project. A developer hires a consultant to prepare an environmental impact report which is submitted to the county. Then county planners are on the hook to determine whether that EIR is adequate or should be rejected. If there is disagreement, the developer can appeal.

This is a very different scenario, however, than the current system on the rivers. All the agencies -- county, state and federal -- currently rely on the integrity of the independent environmental review of the CHERT. If the CHERT system were to be replaced by one of self-policing, the burden of certifying the integrity of the environmental review would be shifted to the Corps.

We do not simply accept as adequate an EIR prepared by a consultant paid directly by a developer. Nor should we automatically accept an environmental review paid directly by a gravel operator.

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