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Rocky Road

Napa's Syar quarry wins battle, but is expansion necessary?

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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 road-building 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, 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 road-building. "We need a local source of aggregate," acknowledges Kathy Felch, a leading opponent of the expansion, referring to the road-building 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 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 road-building 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 road bed materials into new road-building 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.

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