Property Owner Jim Kozak Allegedly Violating Environmental Regulations
DESERT HOT SPRINGS, CA – A surface mining operation has started up in Desert Hot Springs with the operator planning to operate for the next ten years removing over nine million tons of material in that time. The mine has started up even though it has not met conditions required by the state agency that oversees mining operations.
In fact, its already in business, exporting sand to a project in Twentynine Palms and rock for a project in Cathedral City making money.
The project has been the source of numerous inquiries by Desert Hot Springs residents wondering about the plume of dust rising up from an area near State Route 62, near Pierson Blvd.
The mining operation turns out to be on Worsley Road adjacent to the Skyborne residential development and the brainchild of residential developer James Kozak, owner of the unfinished Skyborne residential development. The mining operation is on his property and operated for Kozak by Tri-Star Construction, a local Desert Hot Springs company.
The project appears to violate a bucket load of local, state and federal environmental, zoning and health regulations. The once secret operation does not appear to be approved by the California Department of Conservation as required, but has that agency’s attention now.
Officials for the California Department of Conservation are now aware this operation exceeds the permissible threshold of disturbing more than one acre or in excess of 1,000 cubic yards. On the date of this article’s publication around a dozen hard hat construction guys were working the mine.
The Skyborne Mine
A department official said the scale of the Skyborne Mine requires a conditional use permit, a reclamation plan and must have a financial instrument (security bond) guaranteeing funding for the reclamation of the site at the end of mining operations.
Phase one involves four acres for the project begun last month. Phase one mining operations are expected to last another three weeks to export 1,000 truckloads of rock, sand and gravel.
The project is nearby to the fragile Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan area. It is also upwind of Desert Hot Springs in an area that is one of the windiest spots in the nation, raising concerns about airborne PM10 and PM2.5 dust particulates.
The city of Desert Hot Springs just received a $3 grant from the SCAQMD specifically to control PM10 and PM2.5.
This project has now caught the attention of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The AQMD inspector visited the mining operation last Friday and reported it to Desert Hot Springs city officials.
Already nearby residents have complained of dust and other particulates migrating off the mining site and inundating their properties.
Impossible to Ignore
Although the daily dust cloud is impossible to ignore, homeowners in the once pricey and recently built subdivision of Skyborne were initially unaware that mining operations adjacent to the homes were operated by the developer.
An attempt was made to contact Jim Kozak but his phone went unanswered.
Kozak and his Skyborne Ventures purchased the unfinished Skyborne residential housing development at the start of housing bust by paying pennies on the dollar. The wait to begin building has been five years. Meanwhile, the land was just sitting there.
At a conservative estimate of $10 a ton for the aggregate and Kozak’s plans to export nine million tons show the project to be worth millions. But first it was supposed to get approvals from State agencies, a step Kozak seems to have ignored.
“We got a lot more dust now raining down on us, that’s for sure,” said one Skyborne homeowner who did not want their name used in the story. “First we got cheated buying a home out here with the promise of a clubhouse and a gym that’s all locked up. Now Kozak is stealing our good air.”
Jim Kozak has been a generous campaign contributor to city council members Scott Matas, Jan Pye and mayor Yvonne Parks. Former council member Karl Baker also received campaign beneficence from Kozak, a savvy developer with the right political connections.
Protesting Degradation of Air Quality
It is a wicked situation where it may be impossible to stop this kind of project from kicking up a dust cloud.
Nearby, windmills spin from powerful winds as high as 80 mph generating energy. Mining operations inevitably are stirring up more fine-grained particulates and tossing them to the wind as wholesale containment is an expensive if not impossible challenge.
The native source of most naturally occurring local airborne particulates is the Whitewater Wash that geologically and geographically separates the cities of Desert Hot Springs and Palm Springs. Yet that is strategically situated in a no-man’s land miles away from the vast majority of residential areas for the city of nearly 30,000 residents.
The new Sentinel Venture natural gas-fired power plant that went into operation last month and just 4 miles south of the Skyborne Mine is a magnet that has been drawing a steady stream of protesters to council meetings complaining about the imminent degradation of air quality. Yet, the direction the wind blows scrubbed emissions from the power plant facility carries pollutants away from the city by the natural path of the wind.
Mining operations orchestrated by Jim Kozak blow dust directly into the heart of residential areas in the city.
The project location is inside the city limits of city of Desert Hot Springs, off Pierson Blvd between Indian Ave. and Hwy 62 just 1.1 mile north on Worsley Rd. on east side of road.
Mining operations are located less than 1 mile to the residential subdivision of Skyborne Development and 4.5 miles in a straight line “as the wind blows” to a high concentration of residential units surrounding city hall.
Blowing in the Wind
Daily mining operations have been characterized by workers there as simply “cleaning up the property” and they say this is covered by Kozak’s grading permit. That does not appear to be true.
Chairman of the City of Desert Hot Springs Planning Commission Steve Sobotta confirms this project never came before the City’s Planning Commission. A request has been submitted to the city Planning Department to review the Skyborne Development Grading Plan.
According to the city those grading plans and project entitlements held by Jim Kozak have expired.
The Municipal Code for city of Desert Hot Springs does not designate it as the lead agency for mining operations. Both Sobotta and other public officials confirm that to be the case and are not aware of the mining operations of Jim Kozak ever coming before the Commission.
In the absence of the city operating as lead agency the regulatory authority defaults to the State Mining and Geology Board.
The AQMD has received reports of off-site particulate migration which is especially noticeable on windy days, of which there are many. There are no signs as required for dust control, information to contact regulatory authorities or the property owner and “No Trespassing” signs are absent.
On Shaky Ground for Stiff Fines
California agencies have a big hammer and are not afraid of using it upon those that thumb their nose at environmental regulations. Just last week the State Mining and Geology Board levied their biggest ever fines against the Big Cut Mine in Eldorado County. After repeatedly failing to comply with requests to submit to state air and mining regulations the company was hit with an $11 million fine.
For some businesses the payment of fines is just another part of doing business. Some escape paying fines by filing bankruptcy, leaving the clean-up to be carried out by city and county governments.
It is too early to know what this business will do.
For over 40 years Dean has been published in a variety of small newspapers and magazines. As publisher he founded an alternative city weekly newspaper in 2008 and published over 200 uninterrupted issues over 4 years to over 20,000 readers via 800 locations (and online) before selling the business.
Dean is a Master Carpenter and the author of the biography of Hilda M Gray, desert homesteader.
In 2014 he was appointed Planning Commissioner for the city of Desert Hot Springs, California.
Dean M Gray is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors and lives in Desert Hot Springs, California.