America’s last coastal sand mine received an ultimatum this month when California’s State Lands Commission ordered CEMEX to either comply with state law or stop plundering sand from the Monterey coast. Echoing a refrain that environmental activists in the area have held for decades, Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom (who also chairs the State Lands Commission) said, “Stealing public resources for private profit without a lease is a violation of the state constitution and statute. This mine is a relic of an era that California and the nation rejected a long time ago, and it is past time that CEMEX engage in a dialogue on the future of operations.”
Surfrider Foundation’s Legal Associate Staley Prom explains the potential ramifications:
The Commission cited the fact that CEMEX’s operations, which mine tons of sand – as much as 200,000 cubic yards annually in recent years – from the beach, constitutes a “conversion” (that’s stealing, in legalese) of public trust sand resources. As the letter notes, the commercial exploitation of a public trust resource (which the state holds and protects on behalf of the public) without compensation to the State, constitutes an expropriation of public property that is prohibited by the California Constitution.
Given CEMEX’s high rates of extraction for many years, without any current permits or leases in place, it’s no surprise that the beaches around CEMEX are eroding faster than anywhere else along California’s coast. Accordingly, the Commission’s letter also asserts that in addition to the financial and resource loss to California, CEMEX’s operation has also caused environmental damage, public and private property damage, and loss of economic benefit through beach erosion. This likely constitutes a nuisance, which may be stopped under California case law.
Surfrider Foundation’s Monterey chapter, along with Santa Cruz-based Save Our Shores, have spent years advocating for government intervention to stop CEMEX’s sand mining, which has been shown to be the major contributor to Monterey County’s rapid coastal erosion.
In the press release announcing State Lands’ action against CEMEX, State Controller and Commissioner Betty T. Yee noted, “Today’s letter is the culmination of extensive staff research on this issue including consultation with experts, review of scientific literature, and site visits,” said State Controller and Commissioner Betty T. Yee. “The Commission’s lease application review process will properly analyze the effects of CEMEX’s sand mining to recreation, the local economy, and to the state’s public trust resources.”
This bolsters the case against CEMEX being made by the California Coastal Commission, which threatened a cease-and-desist action in March of last year. Since then, enforcement staff has been discussing options with CEMEX representatives – an agreement preferred to the inevitable litigation would ensue – and is expected to recommend action at the Coastal Commission’s July meeting, which takes place in Seaside.
The State Lands Commission’s letter is particularly validating for Ed Thornton, a retired coastal engineer at the Naval Postgraduate School, who has studied – and fought to shut down – CEMEX’s operation for decades. “I feel vindicated,” Thornton said in the Monterey Weekly Now. “It will be an environmental triumph – the people won.”
Thornton’s research shows that the mine is causing an average coastal erosion rate of roughly four feet annually from the Salinas River to Monterey – the equivalent of a full dump truck of sand leaving every 26 minutes. So it’s not surprising that the Southern Monterey Bay shore is on average the most erosive sandy shore in California, a fact referenced by the public in pleading for agency involvement and by the state agencies upon getting involved.
The next move depends on CEMEX. Will the international corporation submit an application to State Lands almost sure to be denied? Will it settle with the Coastal Commission? Or will CEMEX fight every step of the way, all while stealing California’s sand out from under the feet of the public it belongs to? Stay tuned… or better yet, get involved.
Note: The California State Lands Commission letter can be viewed here. More about Surfrider’s Monterey chapter and the fight to save the Monterey shore here. Those in the L.A. area can join Surfrider’s West L.A.-Malibu chapter for a screening of Sand Wars and an update on the CEMEX campaign by yours truly at Old Rapp Saloon, 1438 Second St, Santa Monica.)