From: Mike Taugher, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.
Published September 29, 2004 12:00 AM

Largest Supplier of Construction Materials to Pay Record $373,000 Fine

Sep. 29—The world's largest supplier of construction materials paid a record fine this week to settle claims it illegally mined sand out of San Francisco Bay.


The $373,000 fine paid by Hanson Aggregates is the largest ever collected in the 39-year history of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.


According to a settlement agreement released Tuesday, Hanson and companies that were purchased by Hanson in 1999 were accused of mining more sand that was allowed under their permits. The company also dredged without required permits, according to the commission.


Will Travis, BCDC executive director, said sand mining might result in a loss of habitat for salmon, sturgeon and other species, but he acknowledged that it was unclear how much damage was done.


"It's surprising how little is known about the bottom of the Bay," he said. "Scientists are increasingly believing they (sandy bottom areas) have habitat values."


Travis added that because the sand mining took place outside the scope of permits, authorities never had the chance to determine whether mining would destroy habitat.


Hanson denied wrongdoing.


"We wanted to put this (the BCDC case) behind us," said Hanson vice-president Bill Butler, "so we could really focus our efforts on the real issue, which is our long-term commitment to the environmental health of the Bay."


The company still faces a $200 million lawsuit filed last year by Attorney General Bill Lockyer that accuses Hanson and the companies it purchased of underpaying royalties and stealing sand out of the Bay.


Hanson, a subsidiary of a London-based conglomerate with local offices in Pleasanton, has purchased a handful of smaller sand companies in the Bay over the last decade. The company is worried that BCDC will not renew its sand mining permits when they expire in the coming years because of a commission policy that says material cannot be removed from the Bay if there is an alternative.


Because Hanson has imported sand to the Bay Area from British Columbia in the past, the company has expressed concern that the BCDC will interpret that to mean there is an alternative to mining in the Bay.


"We believe the alternatives analysis required by that (policy) . . . goes well beyond any environmental issues," Butler said.


Travis said it was unclear whether the commission would veto a permit renewal on that basis.


Still, Hanson is among those trying to limit the authority of the BCDC.


In May, the Bay Planning Coalition asked the governor's California Performance Review commission to investigate whether the BCDC's authority over sand mining and other activities was needed, since other agencies also monitor activities in the Bay. Butler is on the Bay Planning Coalition's board of directors.


The Bay Planning Coalition's letter said that if its suggestions were put in place, "BCDC would be refocused on its basic mission. It would have a reduced staff and would be more efficient in reviewing permit applications in general and issuing them in a timely manner. There would also be a reduced level of state appropriations from the general fund."


In fact, the review commission's draft report incorporated much of the planning coalition's suggestions and recommends an audit of BCDC's authority over sand mining, maintenance dredging and routine dock repairs "to determine whether it has overstepped its authority."


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© 2004, Contra Costa Times, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.


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