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KCBX Two-Way: Monterey County's Cemex sand mine

Gary Griggs
An aerial view of the Cemex sand mine lagoon.

In March of 2016, the California Coastal Commission sent a cease and desist warning to the Cemex company over its sand mine on the Monterey County coast. Cemex, a multinational company headquartered in Mexico, operates the Cemex Lapis Sand plant on a beach about eight miles north of Monterey. The company’s customers use the mined sand in products ranging from water filtration systems to golf courses to concrete. But the facility has long been controversial in the area, and this week there was a new development. 

To learn more, KCBX News spoke with a reporter who has been covering this story for several years. David Schmalz is a senior staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. We started our conversation by asking David to describe the Cemex sand mine.

Schmalz: Sure. It is the last remaining coastal sand mine in the United States. In Sand City and the city of Marina - where the Cemex mine is operating now - historically there were about a half dozen sand mines that operated for several decades, and they all used draglines [a type of excavator]. They were shut down by the State Lands Commission (SLC) in the mid-to-late 1980s because the State Lands Commission has jurisdiction over the public trust land seaward of the high tide line. And after some environmentalists started really campaigning, it was determined that the State Lands Commission wasn’t going to renew the leases for those sand mines because of the erosion impact they were creating. However, the Cemex mine - since the mid-1960s, they've been operating their mine in a dredge pond above the mean high tide line. So they have been able to skirt regulation for many decades that way.

KCBX: I see. What happened this week?

Schmalz: The news this week was that the State Lands Commission made a determination that the sand that [Cemex is] mining from this lagoon that is above the tide line is actually coming from the public trust land. In that the sand flows down the coastline and then waves wash it into the lagoon. So what [the SLC] basically said was “just because you're operating in a place outside of our jurisdiction, you are taking a state resource with this operation, therefore you're subject to regulation. You haven't had a lease since you let it expire in 1969. You must immediately apply for a new lease or cease operations immediately.” And they mentioned that the lease application could potentially be subject to environmental review and that would mean an environmental impact report. And it's a pretty indefensible operation, from an environmental standpoint. It’s the primary reason southern Monterey Bay has the highest coastal erosion rate in the state, and leading coastal engineers who have been studying it estimate it’s causing at least four feet annually average erosion from the Salinas River to Monterey.

KCBX: Have you talked to the company? What is their reaction to the state trying to shut them down?

Schmalz: I have not talked to anyone on the phone. They have not been amenable to that. There have been a couple of spokespeople that I've gone through, and they maintain that it's a vested right, that they have been there so long that it predates the Coastal Act. And so therefore they believe that they can keep operating this mine in perpetuity.

KCBX:You've been covering this for a while, were you surprised by this week's news or did you expect it?

Schmalz: Well, a bunch of my sources went up to the State Lands Commission meeting on April 20th. They told me after that meeting that they got the sense that state lands commission was going to do something based on some things that [California Lt. Governor] Gavin Newsom said. But then three weeks pass and nothing happened...then all of a sudden they took action. So I was a little surprised...I did expect something to eventually happen, I just didn't know when.

KCBX: If [Cemex goes] out of business [in Marina], will we no longer have any concrete? Where will [Cemex’s customers] get the sand?

Schmalz: No, no...this is the only coastal sand mine left in this country, but there are plenty, plenty more that are inland, that are basically quarries. And this is one of many, many, many operations like this that Cemex has, it's not a huge part of their portfolio. So it's really just a drop in the bucket in terms of the global supply of sand. It's not going to have an impact on anything except the company's bottom line. And, most importantly, on our local coast.

KCBX: I’ve been speaking with David Schmalz, senior staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly.