MONTEREY BAY, Calif. - Some scientists and environmentalists are accusing a Mexican corporation of doing serious harm to the Monterey Bay beach by removing massive amounts of sand. The company claims its sand mining business is legal, but the beach is shrinking, and the California Coastal Commission is threatening to shut down the operation.
The Cemex sand mine is on an isolated stretch of beach in the town of Marina at the south end of Monterey Bay. A dredge boat sucks up sand from a watery pit, just above the mean high line. Cemex calls it the sand Lapis Lustre, and sells it for everything from construction to golf courses. ABC7 News found it for sale at Home Depot for $4.40 for a 50-pound bag.
Cemex refuses to say how much sand it is taking and refused to speak to ABC7 News on camera, but critics were eager to talk about the operation.
Coastal engineer Ed Thornton calls the Cemex sand mine "the most damaging operation on the coast of California." Thornton is professor with the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey and has been studying the impact of the sand mine for years. He and other scientists, including Gary Griggs, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at U.C. Santa Cruz, believe the Cemex mine is causing serious erosion along the Monterey Bay coast. Thornton calculates it's the equivalent of losing more than six acres of pristine beach, every year.
The operation has outraged environmental activists who packed a recent showing of "The Last Coastal Sand Mine," a short film by Ed Schehl, featuring critics of the sand mine.
Katherine O'Dea, executive director of Save Our Shores, accuses Cemex of "taking public trust sand. They take it for free and they sell it for considerable profit."
The sand mine has actually been operating in various forms for over 100 years, but about a year ago the California Coastal Commission notified Cemex of the commission's intent to start cease and desist proceedings.
The notice says there's been a "significant increase in the volume of sand extraction" and accuses Cemex of "unpermitted development."
The commission says the operation is narrowing beaches and impacting environmentally sensitive habitat.
However, Cemex is still operating. The company sent ABC7 News a statement denying the commission's allegations, and saying it is committed to ongoing talks to find a resolution.
The Cemex statement says in part: "The contentions that Lapis (sand) plays a significant role in the region's rate of beach erosion are based on, what we believe to be, erroneous and speculative data and unsound theory."
Five other sand mines on Monterey Bay were closed in 1990 because of environmental issues. The Cemex mine survived because the dredge pond itself is on private property.
But the pond is just a few yards from the public beach, and Thornton says that's where the sand Cemex sells really comes from. He says waves and high tides wash public sand onto the Cemex property where the company sucks it up and sells it. According to Thornton: "All the sand originates from the ocean."
Kevin Miller with The Surfrider Foundation released a statement saying: "A lot of us feel that if we can't get this sand mine closed, it really calls into question our ability as a state to be able to protect our coastline at all."
Activists are now sending envelopes containing Cemexsand to politicians, demanding action. They delivered that message at a State Lands Commission meeting in Berkeley. Lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom is chairman. He said there has been some progress on the issue, but gave no details and made no promises.
Read the entire statement from Walker Robinson, the External Communications Manager at CEMEX USA:
CEMEX denies the allegations in the Coastal Commission's Notice of Intent, which we have been addressing directly with Commission Staff, both prior to and since the NOI was issued.
The Lapis facility in Marina has been in operation for more than 100 years and continues to operate within CEMEX's legal entitlements. Government entities - including the Coastal Commission and City of Marina - have long recognized CEMEX's vested right to continue a sand production business. Any conclusion otherwise would ignore decades of operational history and interactions between the operators of Lapis and various governmental bodies as well as repeated actions by those entities recognizing these rights.
CEMEX is aware of environmental concerns raised by certain individuals and organizations regarding the Lapis operation. However, CEMEX is not aware of any evidence it finds credible that the Marina facility is causing the negative impacts suggested. The contentions that Lapis plays a significant role in the region's rate of beach erosion are based on, what we believe to be, erroneous and speculative data and unsound theory. As has been recognized by numerous scientific studies of the California coast and other coasts around the world, erosion is a complex issue. The perceived erosion in the area cannot fairly be attributed to the Lapis operation to the exclusion of other natural and manmade factors, such as sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and damming of rivers, which are known to have profound impacts. According to a study recently published by the U.S. Geological Survey, winter beach erosion along the West Coast was 76% above normal due to the 2015-16 El Niño.
CEMEX is disappointed with the mischaracterizations of its operation and attempts to sensationalize the perceived impacts of our operation as we have been actively engaged in discussions with the Coastal Commission to address any concerns.
CEMEX is committed to operating in a sustainable and conscientious way and also takes great care to integrate biodiversity conservation into our operations. CEMEX sponsors many onsite biodiversity programs throughout our sites in the United States, including the Lapis facility in Marina, to protect and cultivate the unique ecosystems in which we live and work.
We remain committed to our ongoing factual discussions with the Coastal Commission regarding our Lapis operation. We believe that is the most promising and productive way to reach a resolution that balances the interests of our various stakeholders, which include our employees (union and non-union), customers, vendors, the Marina community, the Coastal Commission, and environmental organizations.
Click here to read the Cemex NOI Cease and Desist Order.
Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.