At one point during last Thursday's hearing in front of the Mendocino County Planning Commission, as they considered a proposal for an open pit gravel mining operation in Covelo, I thought I heard a curious, faint, wheezing sound. As if sea creatures of some kind were rising to the surface of the water to breathe.
It happened to be during the testimony of the applicant, Brian Hurt, and the engineer he retained for the project, George Rau. Earlier in the hearing, after being invited by the Commission to speak, Rau had deferred his testimony until after the many people who wanted to speak during the public input section had spoken. Most of those who did speak asked the Commission to have an EIR (Environmental Impact Report) done before allowing the project to move forward, the main point of contention for the hearing. The reasons they gave ranged from the heatedly personal to measured, science-based concern regarding the project's potential harm to the aquifer, the watershed, endangered species, etc. When the public comment period was over, Rau spoke at length by way of responding to these complaints as well as others offered in letters attached to the meeting.
As I listened to Rau and then later to Hurt's explanation regarding various aspects of the project's inception and scope as well as allegations Hurt was currently under investigation by the County for improperly turning his backyard into a gravel mining and grinding operation (which turned out to be true), the wheezing sound presented itself sporadically and faintly, so that I could never be quite sure if I was hearing it or imagining it.
Only later, as the members of the Commission in turn made their closing remarks and gave their vote — in every case a Yes, that Grist Creek Aggregates, LLC c/o Brian Hurt, should be allowed to proceed without an EIR — did I seem to finally understand what that strange sound was: the sighs of relief by the Commissioners as they were persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt (and in some cases into downright faith) that the project was as good a thing as Rau and Hurt had been telling them it was.
For in nearly every case, the Commissioners framed their vote before casting it in something like the following way: “before this meeting I had terrible concerns and thought for sure an EIR would be necessary but now all my questions have been answered.” Their relief from the terrible duty of having to resist the proposal seemed palpable.
And so the hearing came to an end. It had been a long, tense, four or five hours that pitted a good number of Covelo's concerned locals against one of their foremost citizens. As I made my way up the clogged aisle with everyone who had come to the hearing, I too wanted to breathe a sigh of relief. The room had become warm with heated pleas for patience on the Commission's part in issuing the go-ahead, for the Chinook salmon and the yellow-legged tree frog, for the visual purity of Round Valley (the project would be an eyesore) for clean air (the project would fill the air with dust and the noise pollution of mining and grinding machinery) and with countervailing claims of Hurt's benevolent intentions, essential goodness, and contributions to Covelo over the years.
There were no windows in the room, no fresh air, the only light came from flourescent lights. Stuck in the congested stream of fellow Covelonians, all of us made a bit queasy by the strain and weirdness of a public confrontation (rifts in Covelo are usually conducted by means of gossip and grapevine) of one group against another, I wanted, with increasing urgency, to heave my own sigh of relief.
I took a deep breath of that soggy air.
But should I let it go and relax, knowing that the Commission, invested with the charge of overseeing and safeguarding the county's resources, had made a good and careful decision from a perspective, and with information, granted them by their charge and years of experience, that I just didn't have access to? Or would that exhale be poisonous, a sigh of recognition that the cheerful statement at the beginning of the meeting by the chairman of the Commission, upon looking out at the crowded gallery, that he was “glad to see democracy at work” had been made farcical, pregnant with malignant irony as the dark side of democracy (where a soon-to be-defrauded population is faux-listened to as they raise their concerns by The Bureaucracy who then proceed to give the Big-Daddy at hand what he wants) had once again asserted itself against the force of the real thing.
Hard to say. … I held my breath.
The institutional carpeting under my feet became softer, the world around me a little further away as mild oxygen deprivation set in. Suddenly I was revisited by the slow-motion, high-definition replay of my brief moment at the lectern earlier when I'd managed — under the sudden, composure-impaling pressures of stage-fright — to get out less than a third of my carefully prepared speech.
It was lavish in its storytelling and earnestness. I'd worked on it from 6am that morning, revising it as necessary through my drive to Ukiah and the proceedings. I was to speak of the otters and the “eel” (actually a strange kind of fish with a mouth in its underside) for which the Eel River is named that I used to see in the creek I live next to when I moved to the Covelo in '96 but hadn't for years, and also of the many, glorious and enormous Chinook salmon I'd watched swim upstream this last fall, which I had never seen in my entire time in Covelo.
Point being the enormously complex chain-of-life that included the Eel, the salmon, our watershed and us, the delicate but amazing treasures of our local landscape and the need to protect it/them now and for future generations.
A bewildered, nauseated sensation came with the realization that I had so completely and apoplecticly succumbed to the fear-of-public-speaking. The image of the members of the Commission surrounding me returned, each of their faces as they watched me (try to) speak, and in the way of dreams, a kind of hearing-highlights was composed by my increasingly oxygen depleted brain. Throughout, I'd been watching the members of the Commission closely, their responses to the locals who spoke and to Rau and Hurt, the questions they did and seemed not to ask.
They had in general been attentive, if not spectacularly, then at least in the workaday, not in an entirely focused sort of way one expects of career bureaucrats, perhaps occasionally, faintly irritated at having to listen to knee-jerk harangues by not particularly well informed citizenry, as in the case of the Commission chairman who shuffled papers into his microphone during a segment of public input. After having listened to said public, and then to Hurt/Rau they seemed to me curiously devoid of any pressing need to clarify or question the applicant further regarding their responses to the host of concerns raised. But then, I told myself, it stood to reason they had been through the specifics of the proposal, already belabored its impact, etc. and because already well and thoroughly informed didn't need to press further.
But now, as I found myself outside the County buildings under a brilliant clear blue sky, warmed by the sun, dangerously close to fainting as I held that breath of soggy, tense, courtroom-like air, things occurred to me in a different sort of way: the members of the Commission had been largely ornamental to the proceedings, an authoritative, validating presence and wielder of a large rubberstamp. Their lack of questioning reflected not a surfeit of genuine trustworthy information but a lack of genuine interest in pursuing the matter to the fullest. The limpness of the few, half-hearted questions the Commission asked seemed now perhaps blatantly, mockingly rote.
And while there had been a spattering of vague, apocalyptic, heated and not terribly scientific cries of protest (perhaps the very kind of low-grade hysteria one would expect to induce the weirdly dilated pupils of bureaucratic functionaries), there had also been a few instances of very carefully reasoned, forcefully argued exceptions. One of them, it now occurred to me with especial highlightedness, involved a four-page letter by the Round Valley County Water District.
At the beginning of the meeting John Speka of the Mendocino County Department of Planning and Building (and their coordinator for this project) had presented two letters, the writers of which had asked be read into the minutes of the hearing. He read the first one, after which Counsel for the County made the point that it was not in fact required that letters be read in, even if asked to be. The second letter (by the RV Water District) was not read, as it was four pages long, “in the interests of time.” Later in the meeting however, in an ingenious bit of stagecraft by opponents of the mine (three people filled out the proper form to speak and then dedicated their cumulative allotment of nine minutes — three minutes per person — to the reading of the letter) the letter was read in its entirety, by Speka. It contained a long list of very substantive sounding exceptions to the application for the mine, as well as the allegation of Hurt's improper/illegal mining on his own property.
And yet, it returned to me, even this had not seemed to animate the Commission toward vigorous inquiry. But again, perhaps Rau's defense had, in its broad and technical net, caught all the matters raised by the letter. I hadn't been able to follow all the various points (recharging of the aquifer, alluvial fans, original and modified streamcourses etc.) made by the RV Water Board's letter or the rejoinders to these points by Rau. So maybe the apparent, indifferent languor of the Commission was nothing of the kind, perhaps the concerns raised had been sufficiently and substantively answered.
And yet… And yet there had been some really vigorous inquiry — I remembered suddenly — by one of the Commissioners, Jim Little. Though silent and semi-recumbent in his chair through most of the proceedings he had come to life in the final minutes of the hearing. The flap of hair hanging, it seemed, in his eyes, was pushed back as Mr. Little offered a battery of thorough, articulate questions that, for the first time in the meeting, included tough, searching follow-up questions. Little seemed intent on getting to the bottom of things, including the accusations regarding Hurt's allegedly illegal mining operation. He grilled Rau and Hurt equally. Rau expanded with further technical clarification as to how and why the proposal's science sufficiently and definitively countered all the allegations leveled against it. Hurt explained how his extensive knowledge of Fish and Game guidelines etc. had led him to believe his unpermitted mining fell within his rights, then opined again on his community serving intentions with the project (the project originally, Hurt claimed, arose from his desire to find work for some of the 60-odd people he currently employs that would not be affected by the seasons). He had “bent over backwards” in every way the County had asked and more, he said. But for many of those who spoke at the hearing, this bending over backwards had been, apparently, outside the public’s purview, such that many, including, apparently, the Round Valley Tribal Council and the Round Valley County Water Board, an agency that should have been, by law (I'm told), apprised of the proposal straightaway, had been blindsided by the fact and scope of the proposed project and its nearly complete passage through the County’s permitting process. Mr. Little's questions probed into all these matters.
And yet, as I considered all of this again, at the very limits of my ability to hold my breath for a second more, it seemed possible that — was it possible? — Mr. Little's inquiry had been carefully orchestrated to allow Rau and Hurt, in the last minutes of the hearing, an opportunity to respond fully and finally to the most damning concerns raised by their opponents. Perhaps (“I know Mr. Hurt,” Little disclosed) as the representative of the district representing Covelo, Little wanted to give the appearance (and/or reality?) of having indifferently and rigorously pursued all aspects of the proposal. Was Little's questioning indifferent and rigorous or a carefully maneuvered ruse?
Just before I passed out I took a big gulp of Mendocino County air. I was sitting on the tailgate of my truck, watching groups of people milling outside the County Building. The pros and cons, the drama of the hearing whirled through my head. I still didn't know. Had we all just witnessed a governmental ballet, seen inside the County machinery, heard the pistons of the Bureaucracy-Big Daddy reciprostroking pistons firing or again, was the Commission's decision sound and reasonable, made with the best and fullest interests of its citizens, difficult and unpalatable to those against it due to an inflated sense of environmental paranoia?
Alas, I could come to no conclusion. Having been away for a month prior to the hearing I'd learned about it only the afternoon before, with no time to wrap my head around the particulars, and was more or less drowned in the war of details.
I didn't know what to think, but what I did know (from a knowledgeable source) was that the unanimous decision of the Commission will be appealed. Similar cases have gone as far as appellate courts in San Francisco I've been told. So it would appear that there will be time and opportunity to find answers to my questions.
Watch for the next article that may or may not appear in this publication under my name as to what I find out.