Its a Bird, Its a Plane, Its a Mine
DESERT HOT SPRINGS, CA – Time and again those under the microscope of our reporting often dismiss our online newsroom as insignificant until once again the mainstream press follows our lead.
So it is with our first reporting of the Skyborne Mine and a story picked up by KESQ television news broadcast on 6/25/2013 and The Desert Sun in a 6/28/2013 story filed reporter Tamera Sone. More details are still emerging.
Enough of that, let’s get to the latest on the Skyborne Mine story.
Property owner Jim Kozak whose company Skyborne Ventures owns the Skyborne residential development where the mine was illegally set up spent the week trying to spin that he was only cleaning up old tires and assorted debris in response to a code enforcement violation issued by the city.
He was not about to admit he had set up a mine in his stalled residential development even though that is exactly what he had done.
That mine including a mine shovel, hopper, sorter, conveyor and a front loader all used in a process to create a 50 foot tall by 500 foot long mountain of finished sand and even taller mountain of mixed aggregate.
Before being issued a cease and desist order by the State Board of Mining and Geology on Friday, Kozak, according to job foreman Bryan Williams of Tri-Star Construction, had already began doing business. William bragged that plans for the operation were not to remove trash but to remove from the site nine million tons of earth over the next ten years.
Williams also revealed that truckloads of sand were scheduled for a Tri-Star project up in Twentynine Palms and truck loads of rock had been supplied to a flood control dam being constructed by Tri-Star in Cathedral City, all of which took place weeks before Kozak ever received a notice of violation from the city to clean up his property.
Also contradicting Kozak is a state engineering geologist who inspected the operations last Thursday and within minutes determined Kozak was operating a surface mine without permits and in violation of the 1975 state mining act.
The bare land that is part of the massive housing development off Pierson Boulevard on Worsley Road and only partially competed is now left with the scared aftermath of a stopped mining operation, no doubt of the kind that serves as the reason the 1975 act was put in place.
Resident’s complaints of noise and dust blowing across there homes caught the attention of Desert Hot Springs Council Member Russell Betts who brought up the matter with city manager Rick Daniels during a council meeting Tuesday, June 18.
In response, Rick Daniels replied that the mining operation would be issued an immediate cease and desist order by the city. That never happened. Instead, the city issued a citation ordering Kozak to clean up branches, trash and debris.
It was business as usual with mining operations continuing for 10 more days with no city no red tag in sight proving that a cease and desist order had not actually been issued. In both the KESQ and The Desert Sun story, Kozak attempted to use the city citation as cover to keep mining.
What Kozak did not know is that Councilman Betts had already issued a request for a formal investigation with the State Mining and Geology Board.
Based on the information it had received, the State Mining and Geology Board opened an investigation that included sending an inspector from Sacramento to confirm that Kozak’s mining operation was no simple clean up effort.
As the Skyborne Mine continued to scrape away at the earth and mountains of aggregate grew larger, the Mining Board made plans for its inspection. When its inspector showed up Thursday, the Skyborne Mine was in full-tilt operation. Within minutes it was ordered to shut down.
Fines Began Friday
“A notice of violation was issued today to the operator for conducting surface mining without a permit, reclamation plan and financial assurance as required by state law,” State Mining & Geology Board Executive Director Stephen Testa said on Friday. “If they continue working then it will be costly for them.”
Fines to the state begin the first day the stop order is issued. Kozak will also be required to post reclamation bonds to clean up the mining site.
The city of Desert Hot Springs has an aggressive code enforcement program aimed at generating revenue for shoring up the city’s sagging finances. If the city had honestly issued a cease and desist to Kozak – and if Kozak had continued his operations – Kozak’s Skyborne Mine would have generated much needed income for the city.
That is unlikely since Kozak has in the past made generous campaign contributions to three council members controlling the city.
The June 20 citation the city citation issued by Desert Hot Springs Code Enforcement Officer Michael Morris to Skyborne Ventures/Strategic Land Partners, however, only ordered Kozak to remove “trash, junk and debris accumulated throughout the vacant parcel.”
To make this awkwardness clear, Kozak is claiming the reason his work on the property began on June 3 was due to the city citation issued June 20.
Confidentiality Violated and Confidence in City Damaged
Throughout the approximate four weeks the mine was in operation several neighbors who live close to the mine complained about dust and airborne particulates carried by the wind. Several people placed calls, complaining to the Air Quality Management Board.
Those calls drew the attention of an AQMD inspector and resulted in several trips by an AQMD inspector to the mine.
Resident complaints regarding the noise of heavy equipment, rock sorting equipment and mining shovels operating adjacent to their homes, starting as early as 5 a.m. , however, fell on deaf ears at city hall.
Far from issuing the cease and desist order Daniels had promised at the June 18 council meeting, city public works director Hal Goldenberg instead asked Kozak not to start up equipment any earlier than 7 a.m.
Steve Kelly, one of the residents, said those instructions were ignored and each morning at 5:00 a.m. he continued to be awaken by the disturbing roar of diesel tractors, equipment and trucks operating at the break of dawn.
When Kelly complained to Goldenberg, the result was a call by the mine foreman, Williams, that Kelly said became a very hostile reproach.
“I did not give Goldenberg permission to broadcast my name and phone number to the contractor,” said Kelly. “I feel violated. My complaint was supposed to be kept confidential.
Kelly complained to Daniels what Goldenberg had done and said he was told by Daniels that Goldenberg would call him.
Goldenberg did call but not to apologize and only to explain that the city could not – or would not – do anything about the mine. According to Kelly, Goldenberg told him “the operation was just cleaning things up and that this was happening on private property and there was nothing that could be done about it.”
That same week in a meeting between Betts, City Attorney Steve Quintanilla and Goldenberg, the same explanation was repeated by Goldenberg.
Kelly has lived in his desert home for 28 years and was for the month of June troubled the mine was in operation with its accompanying negative effects was pleased Saturday when for the first time in four weeks he was able to again enjoy a quiet morning.
Betts said in an interview with The Desert Sun that he plans to ask the city council during Tuesday’s City Council meeting to take steps requiring the developer to restore the land to its condition before the mining project began. That is also what state officials said is required.
“I find it incredible a local developer would think he could set up a surface mining operation on his unfinished housing development,” Betts said.
The state mining board announced it will also follow up on mandatory reclamation order and bond requirements.
But that is not the only problem for Kozak. According to City Attorney Steve Quintanilla, now that the state mining board has made its determination, Kozak faces citations by the city for engaging in mining activities without a conditional use permit; violating the conditions of their development entitlements for the site; and breaching the terms and conditions of their development agreement with the city.
In an email to The Desert Sun on Friday and as reported by Tamara Sone, Quintanilla said the owner could be subject to revocation of his land use entitlements for the project.
City Health At Risk
A final odd twist is that the city holds liens on this Skyborne development property as a result of doing a favor for Kozak by releasing $10 million in development impact bonds once held by the developer to insure completion of public infrastructure improvements.
It is unclear what issues those liens face if Kozak continues thumbing his nose at neighbors and authorities by maintaining unpermitted surface mining operations for ten years removing the nine million tons triggering a ton of violations relating to federal air quality standards, state mining law and city zoning ordinances.
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. Now online with over 3 million readers worldwide.
Dean is a Master Carpenter and the author of the biography of Hilda M Gray, desert homesteader. He served as Planning Commissioner for the city of Desert Hot Springs from January 2014 to January 2015 when he resigned.
Dean M Gray is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors and lives in Palm Desert, California.
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