.Water Board pursues record-setting $8.6 million fine against BoDean quarry

A Sonoma County building materials company known to tout its environmentally-friendly endeavors is facing an $8.6 million fine for polluting salmon habitat.

On its website, the BoDean Company boasts about its decision to switch its Mark West Quarry to solar power in 2011, reportedly a first-of-its-kind initiative, as well as its installation of a water recycling system at the same facility five years earlier.

However, a review of public documents brings the company’s more recent track record into question.

In mid-September, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board recommended a record-breaking fine against BoDean for allegedly allowing over 10.5 million gallons of silt-tainted water to run off its 120-acre Mark West Quarry into crucial salmon habitat during rainstorms in the winter of 2018-19 and then failing to adequately reform its storm water management practices in the intervening five years.

The Water Board has a separate case against BoDean relating to the company’s water control practices at its Santa Rosa asphalt production plant. A spokesperson for the company said it is working on resolving both cases.

Lastly, in October 2021, the company reached a legal settlement with the nonprofit California River Watch after the group’s attorneys alleged Clean Water Act violations at BoDean’s various facilities. BoDean did not admit to wrongdoing as part of the settlement, but did agree to update its management practices at its facilities, cover River Watch’s $57,500 in legal fees and pay $57,500 for the nonprofit Forest Unlimited to plant thousands of redwood seedlings in wildfire burn zones around the county, according to court records reviewed by the Bohemian.

Photo by Will Carruthers
Mark West Quarry has been in operation since 1918 and owned by BoDean Co for over 30 years. Photo by Will Carruthers

Quarry Case

The Water Board’s Mark West Quarry case became public in September 2021 when the Water Board published its initial case online.

At the time, the Water Board was pursuing a $4.5 million fine against BoDean for “multiple violations of the Clean Water Act that threaten the survival of endangered salmon populations in tributaries of the Russian River.”

“From December 2018 through May 2019, the quarry discharged more than 10.5 million gallons of highly turbid storm water causing significant amounts of fine sediment to deposit in Porter Creek,” a Water Board press release stated.

Two years later, on Sept. 14, 2023, the Water Board issued an amended complaint, tacking on 67 days to the original 45 days of alleged code violations and nearly doubling the suggested penalty to $8.6 million.

According to Claudia Villacorta, an assistant executive officer at the North Coast board, the proposed fine against BoDean is the largest ever issued in the North Coast region, which stretches from Santa Rosa to the Oregon border.

In a phone interview last week, BoDean’s co-owner, Dean Soiland, said that he was “disappointed in the complaint, because we were surprised. We thought we had made significant inroads in our settlement agreement that we had agreed on, and then that was withdrawn… But we’re committed to getting it resolved, and I think it’s going to work out.”

Asked about the previous negotiations, Villacorta said that the agency reached a settlement in principle with BoDean in 2022 but began drafting an amended complaint after the quarry once again failed to comply with regulations.

“Bo Dean Co., Inc. is alleged to have continued to violate permit requirements and is also alleged to have violated water quality sampling and reporting requirements of an investigative order issued on May 1, 2019,” Villacorta wrote. The Mark West Quarry is still out of compliance with regulations to this day, according to Villacorta.

Photo by Paul Nelson/North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board
A Water Board photo from January 2019 shows storm water “exceeded the capacity of the [Mark West Quarry’s] collection and settling system.” Photo by Paul Nelson/North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board

With the issuance of the amended complaint, BoDean will have until the end of the calendar year to reach a settlement agreement with the Water Board. Failing that, the complaint, along with the record-setting fine, will be sent to the regional board’s four directors for approval sometime next spring.

In an emailed response to further questions last week, Soiland said the company “worked quickly to bring a state-of-the-art water treatment system online in the winter of 2019/early 2020” following the start of the Water Board’s investigation. The company is in negotiations with the Water Board on the cases involving the Mark West Quarry and Santa Rosa facility, according to Soiland.

“We have always worked with the Water Board and all local, state, and federal regulatory agencies in good faith. We will continue to do so,” Soiland wrote.

Still, it’s hard to square the company’s line with the Water Board’s. The agency’s amended complaint, stretching to nearly 100 pages between three documents, alleges in pain-staking detail BoDean’s persistent inability or unwillingness to bring its water quality management practices at the quarry into compliance with environmental regulations for five years.

While the complaint mentions some of BoDean’s efforts at compliance, Water Board investigators repeatedly witnessed quarry staff failing to manage stormwater adequately as recently as this January.

“Regional Water Board staff have inspected the Facility 21 times, issued 18 inspection memos, one Notice of Violation (NOV), two Investigative Orders, one Administrative Civil Liability Complaint (Complaint), and met with representatives of the Discharger [BoDean] numerous times,” the amended complaint states in part.

The sheer amount of staff time the Water Board and other agencies have put into pursuing the quarry case suggests they don’t intend to back down. According to the amended complaint, Water Board staff have spent “at least 3,280 hours” on the case. Officials from California Fish and Wildlife, the Environmental Protection Agency and Sonoma County have all visited the quarry over the past few years, contributing information to the Water Board’s amended complaint.

Crucial Habitat

The Mark West Quarry, which has been in operation for over 100 years, has been owned and operated by BoDean for nearly 35 years. According to a 2013 county permit, the company is allowed to extract up to 750,000 tons of stone products from the quarry each year through 2033.

The 120-acre site sits alongside Porter Creek, a tributary to Mark West Creek, which in turn runs into the Russian River. In 2014, California Fish and Wildlife listed Mark West Creek as one of five priority stream systems covered under that year’s California Water Action Plan because it serves as important habitat for California Coastal Chinook salmon, and Central California Coast coho salmon and steelhead trout.

Illustration courtesy of Sea Grant California
Illustration courtesy of Sea Grant California

According to Don McEnhill, a longtime environmental advocate and the executive director of the nonprofit Russian Riverkeeper, the Mark West Creek watershed is one of a dwindling number of habitats for those struggling species. While there were once 70-80 North Bay streams that supported coho, Chinook or steelhead, only 18 now serve that role, McEnhill said.

As for the possible impacts of the more than 10.5 million gallons of turbid water BoDean allegedly released into nearby waterways, McEnhill explained, “In a stream like Porter Creek, sediment is a huge problem. A fish swimming in water that’s got a lot of sediment is like us trying to breathe in a dust storm or, you know, like vacuuming up a house… and then taking all that fine dust and putting it in a bag and breathing it. I mean, it would cause some pretty immediate and acute health issues.”

McEnhill continued, “In addition, as that sediment settles out, it just smothers aquatic life. The base of the food web in aquatic systems is the bottom of the stream. And most everything that lives in the stream requires oxygen. So having water that flows through clean, loose gravel is a critical component of keeping all these microscopic crustaceans and things that form the bottom of the food chain alive. When you clog all those spaces between the gravel and the larger particles with fine sediment, it’s kind of like Pompeii. I mean, you’re burying everything. Everything’s going to die.”

McEnhill said that BoDean has historically had a pretty good environmental record, leaving him somewhat mystified about the company’s inability to close out the Water Board’s Mark West Quarry case so far.

“It’s kind of a head scratcher. I mean, they seem like a pretty up and up company who tries to do the right thing, so I’m not sure why they didn’t respond; that doesn’t really add up,” McEnhill said.

“I’ve actually inspected a lot of quarry sites and have been involved in litigation against quarry sites. Certainly from what we’ve seen, these issues can be resolved… If they take notice and they start taking action, they can fix these issues,” McEnhill added. “We’re hopeful that [the amended complaint] gets their attention and they do the right thing and sit down with the Water Board, hammer out a settlement and resolve the issues.”

Will Carruthershttp://www.wrcarruthers.com
Will Carruthers is the news editor of the Pacific Sun and North Bay Bohemian. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @Carruthers_W.

5 COMMENTS

  1. There haven’t been salmon in Porter or Mark West creeks in decades. There are barely any in the Russian River most years. Notice how nothing has been done to clean-up after the Tubbs fire decimated both Porter and Mark West creeks? This is simply beating a dead horse and trying to ruin an important Sonoma County business.

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    • Do you know why there hasn’t been a salmon spawn in so long? It would also be helpful to know if 2019 was especially wet or if the settling system is far too small to keep from overflowing even in normal years.

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  2. Thanks to Will Carruthers for super investigative reporting!
    If we do not care for our environment we will become an extinct species. I commend & applaud Will’s stewardship,

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  3. This story makes me very worried about the proposed asphalt plant that is being proposed in Forestville. The quarry that is petitioning for it is well known for not following county rules and clearing forest land without permission and damaging a stream that runs through their land. It seems they will not be any more caring as an asphalt plant. But for some reason the county seems to be pushing it through will little hesitation. People all over the county need to be concerned because this story most likely will be repeated in Forestville if this is allowed. And this will instead be the Russian River directly affected.

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  4. An Asphalt Facility is never beneficial to the environment. Never!
    Environment needs to be a priority more now than ever before!
    It’s a simple as that.

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