The pits of the sand and gravel mines that gape and yawn along the length of the Santa Cruz River in Marana are facing tougher regulation and reviews by the town, and mines in unincorporated areas may soon receive similar scrutiny as Pima County pledges to follow Marana's lead.
Marana issued letters last month to two mining operations notifying them they were not in compliance with a host of town regulations and operating agreements. The letters warned the companies that the town may take legal steps to force them to shut down if the problems are not corrected.
The letters, which gave specific deadlines for the corrections, were hammered out after meetings with representatives of Cemex, which operates a sand and gravel mine south of Tangerine Road and west of Interstate 10; and New West Materials, which mines north of Avra Valley Road west of I-10.
Marana Assistant Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said he expected to have similar meetings soon with the operators of Marana Golf, a subsidiary of Kiewit Materials. Marana Golf is in the process of moving Kiewit's San Xavier extraction operation, located north of Cortaro Road and west of I-10, a quarter mile north and incorporating the old pit into a golf course. The plan also calls for the construction of up to 200 homes and 300 apartment units adjacent to the golf course.
"We're trying to bring them all into compliance with our ordinances and they've indicated they want to be good neighbors. They want to sit down with us and figure out what their role and place is in the Northwest as we see it developing," Reuwsaat said.
The Marana Town Council approved ordinances last February that tightened restrictions on mining activities in the town. The Surface Mining and Land Reclamation Ordinance requires detailed reclamation plans for mining pits, monitoring plans and increased license fees and financial assurances.
New West Materials was given two weeks to submit a landscaping plan and to begin landscaping the berm that runs along Avra Valley Road and is intended to shield the operation from the Happy Acres subdivision across the street.
The Jan. 30 letter drafted by Marana Town Attorney Dan Hochuli also required New West to install a dust abatement method, pay the $200,000 reclamation bond required by the town, submit a revised reclamation plan and dedicate roadways to the town.
Dan McQuade, an operations manager for New West, said his company had agreed to the terms and actually initiated the meetings with the town.
"We helped workout the deadlines and we expect to be able to easily comply with the agreement," McQuade said.
Reuwsaat said most of the six sand and gravel mines operating in Marana are "grandfathered" and do not immediately fall under the requirements of the ordinance.
"But as they require new agreements or expansion, the ordinance is triggered," Reuwsaat said. The other three mining operations also may be reviewed.
New West Materials was one of the first sand and gravel companies to fall under the new ordinance after a portion of its operation was annexed into the town last year and the mine was issued a significant land use change for its operation.
The town also tried at the same time to annex Happy Acres and other Pima County neighborhoods located near New West Materials. A significant portion of the neighbors opposed the annexation, as well as the land use change that allowed the expansion of the mining operation, and Reuwsaat said the Happy Acres annexation is "now on hold."
Cemex, which Reuwsaat said is not yet subject to the Marana mining ordinance, was notified in a letter dated Jan. 28 that it was not in compliance with the town's development plans and land use ordinances. The company was told the violations "must be corrected immediately in order to avoid service of a cease and desist order from the town," according to the letter.
The town's letter claimed Cemex had failed to submit a development plan for the operation of its mining activities, had not provided an open space and buffering plan, and had extended its operation onto land zoned for agricultural use.
The extension of the operation became clearly evident when Cemex erected large dirt berms that reach almost to the I-10 frontage road just south of Tangerine, Reuwsaat said.
Steve Knudsen, manager of aggregate operations for Cemex, said his company was still developing a response to the town's letter and he could not yet comment on specifics.
"We only received the letter last week and are still kind of digesting it," Knudsen said.
Hochuli said Cemex and New West Materials had voluntarily met with Marana officials and were cooperating with the town.
"I don't see this as a situation in which we foresee having to take legal action, but the remedy is available to us," Hochuli said.
Reuwsaat said the town is expected to be meeting soon with representatives from Marana Golf, and he declined to specify what if any violations may have occurred.
"It's a situation similar to New West (Materials) in that there may be conditions placed on the project that have yet to be fulfilled. Their moving the operation triggered the requirements of the new ordinance," Reuwsaat said.
David Graham, manager of Marana Golf, did not return calls seeking comment by the Northwest EXPLORER's deadline Monday.
Marana Town Manager Mike Hein said he has corresponded and met with officials from Pima County to try and have both jurisdictions coordinate their efforts in reviewing sand and gravel operations along the Santa Cruz.
"It's simply an attempt to provide good government services to the town and county residents and finding opportunities to work together," Hein said.
The New West Materials operations, which was originally located in and permitted by Pima County before its partial annexation by Marana, prompted the need for cooperation between the jurisdictions, Hein said.
"I was not pleased to find that a sand and gravel operation was permitted (by Pima County) directly adjacent to the town without the town having the opportunity to comment and review the plans for the operation," Hein said, adding that Marana decided to annex New West Materials as a way of exerting some control over its operation.
In a Dec. 18 memo to Hein from Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, Huckelberry wrote that he has instructed the Pima County Flood Control District to review all of the sand and gravel operations in the unincorporated area of the county and to ask other cities and towns in Pima County to also review operations in their jurisdictions.
John Bernal, a deputy county administrator for Pima County's public works division, said the county has already begun laying out a plan for its reviews in the unincorporated areas and Marana will be joining the county in a "comprehensive review."
"The letter from Mr. Huckelberry to Mr. Hein was prompted by our interests in being consistent with what the town of Marana is doing along the Santa Cruz," Bernal said. "Our review, done in consultation with the town, will see if we have a need in Pima County to modify our (codes and regulations) so that we are responding similarly to the impacts and consequences that sand and gravel operations present."
According to the memos between Huckelberry and Hein, much of the focus will be placed on mitigation of the mining sites after extraction operations have ended, monitoring of the operation, maintenance of the facilities and installation of adequate berming and landscaping.
Marana's ordinances and town code also encompass lighting and noise restrictions for sand and gravel operations and other issues that the county's regulations don't directly address, Bernal said.
Suzanne Shields, deputy director of the Pima County Transportation and Flood Control District, said the county also will be looking at the risk of flooding along the Santa Cruz that could possibly inundate the mining pits, divert flood waters or damage structures.
"One of the key things that we monitor sand and gravel operations for is flooding. If there was a flood, and the flood waters broke into a deep pit, they could head-cut up and undermine a bridge or some other structure," Shields said.
Although both Bernal and Reuwsaat stressed their beliefs that the sand and gravel industry serve a useful and productive function, Marana and Pima County officials seem determined to try and mitigate the negative effects created by the mines.
In a Jan. 13 response to Huckelberry, Hein wrote: "All too often, these operations degrade the environment and community while they are in operation and leave nothing but a big hole when they cease… These requirements are new to an industry that has not been particularly concerned with how much of a nuisance they create."
Happy Acres resident Dalia Wakely said she was pleased to learn of the town's crack down on sand and gravel operations.
"The asphalt smell from New West (Materials) is horrible and you can hear the company's trucks rumbling past our house at 7 a.m. and they keep going most of the day," Wakely said. "Believe me, you don't want to live next door to a sand and gravel plant."