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Water regulator to deny Dutra permit

A regional water regulator intends to deny a permit for the Dutra Group, dealing a serious setback to the company’s contentious plans to build an asphalt plant along the Petaluma River just south of the city.

The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board sent a letter on Nov. 1 telling the company that its application is incomplete.

“We’ve told them of our intention to deny their permit,” said Fred Hetzel, an environmental scientist who is working on the Dutra permit for the water board. “(The denial) will come within the month.”

The water board permit is a key approval that the company needs before it can start construction on the long planned asphalt plant on 38 acres of land at Haystack Landing. The company also needs permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bay Area Air Quality District and California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

This summer, the company received permission from the county to add a septic tank on the property, which will also include space for a new San Antonio Volunteer Fire Department station.

Once the water board permit denial is official, Hetzel said that Dutra could appeal the ruling to the state water board. They also have the option of submitting a new permit application.

Aimi Dutra, a spokeswoman for the Dutra group, said the company plans on submitting additional information to the board.

“Our plan is to keep moving forward,” she wrote in an email.

In its letter to the company, the water board said that Dutra did not properly study alternative sites for the asphalt plant.

“After review of the Alternatives Analysis, we have determined that the Applicant has not yet demonstrated that the proposed Project constitutes the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative,” the board wrote in the letter. “As such, the Alternatives Analysis is inadequate.”

Environmental groups have opposed the project since its proposal in 2004, saying it would degrade sensitive wetlands across the river from Shollenberger Park. David Keller, founder of the Petaluma River Council, has long argued that using the site to transport asphalt by barge is infeasible. His group sent 84 pages of comments to the water board arguing the case against the project.

“What this (ruling) says is that the issues we have been raising for years are still on the table,” Keller said. “This is the wrong place for an asphalt plant. There is no need for this project.”

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors narrowly approved the project in 2010, and environmentalists immediately filed a court challenge. A series of court rulings upheld the project, and the company has since moved forward in seeking necessary permits.

Environmentalists said the water board’s decision validates their stance that the riverfront location is not appropriate for an asphalt plant.

“The board is saying that asphalt production does not need to be on the river and they need to broaden their sites to look at non-water-dependent sites,” said Joan Cooper, founder of Friends of Shollenberger. “That’s huge.”

City Councilwoman Teresa Barrett, who has long opposed the project, said the water board’s decision would not be the end of the issue. She said she would continue to monitor the permit process and voice her opposition.

“This is a positive step,” she said. “It is not the final step. It is one more hurdle that they will have to do again. I do feel great about it. Every step they take is going to be watched. We have to keep being vigilant and keep watching it.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)