Petaluma River asphalt plant dealt setback

A controversial asphalt plant that the Dutra Group plans to build along the Petaluma River south of the city remains on hold as a regional water regulator this month sent the proposal back for more study.

An Aug. 17 letter signed by Lisa McCann, assistant executive officer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, stated '… staff have determined that the applicant has not yet demonstrated that the proposed project constitutes the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.'

The San Rafael-based Dutra Group, which was denied a permit in November due to an incomplete application, plans to submit a new application for the long-contested asphalt plant at Haystack Landing.

The recent water board letter covered a wide variety of concerns, including Dutra's desire to ship materials to and from the plant using a barge along the Petaluma River. The project site is directly across the river from the Shollenberger Park wetlands, and the company is required to take extra steps to limit any undue damage to the environmentally sensitive area.

Dutra must consider all other options aside from using the river, and prove why they would not be feasible, water regulators said. The state requires a water board permit for all developments that would affect waterways, in an effort to preserve natural resources.

'In the Bay Area, 90 percent of the wetlands have been destroyed by development,' said David Keller, founder of the Petaluma River Council and a longtime opponent of the Dutra project. 'The health of the bay, the health of our Petaluma River, the health of our shorelines… is very connected to the health of our wetlands.'

Dutra has argued that water access is critical to the facility's financial health. Water regulators, however, cited similar operations that are not dependent on water access.

'As there are facilities operating in the San Francisco Bay Areas that provide asphalt, as well as aggregate, sand and other construction-related products, without access to water, we assume that other such commercially viable sites are available for these activities until proven otherwise,' McCann wrote. 'Based on the viability of these facilities, the cost of transporting asphalt, aggregate and other materials by truck or rail is a normal cost of operating an asphalt plant in the Bay Area, and such costs would therefore not automatically render an alternative as impracticable.'

The board called out Dutra's failure to provide critical information meant to support its position that water access is necessary and alternative sites are not feasible, stating in the letter, '…attorneys for the applicant promised to provide our agency with a legal analysis supporting an interpretation that would permit our agency to consider a site with water access. We have yet to receive any such analysis.'

Aimi Dutra, spokesperson for the Dutra Group, said the company will continue to move forward with a new application.

'The water board has requested additional information from our team and we intend to provide them with that information,' she said in an email. 'Our team has worked and will continue to work diligently to respond to the items raised by RWQCB.'

The board's action is the latest move in the long-fought battle to build the asphalt plant on the Petaluma River. First proposed in 2004, the Board of Supervisors approved the project in 2010. Dutra still needs the blessing of the water board and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife before anything can be built. The company has already spent several years debating nuances of the project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which ultimately disagreed with Dutra's assertion that water access was necessary for the plant.

'There is a level of arrogance that has surrounded Dutra's applications to the county and other governing bodies,' Keller said. 'They have acted like they are entitled to this.'

The Petaluma River Council, headed by Keller, has spent almost a decade fighting the proposed project, sending lengthy comments to the water board, citing the many reasons they think barge access is dangerous for the delicate ecology of the area. Petaluma has spent more than $100,000 fighting construction of the plant on its southern border, but ultimately lost a 2015 court battle.

Now, a collection of environmental groups are challenging each permit application that Dutra submits, one of the few options that remain in preventing the construction of the plant.

The city has also sent comments opposing the plant to the permitting agencies. Mayor David Glass wrote a recent letter to the water board on behalf of the city.

'The City of Petaluma remains constant in its opposition to the placement of the Dutra asphalt batch plant opposite the Shollenberger Park wildlife refuge on the Petaluma River at the southern gateway to the city,' he said in the letter.

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