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Syar Aerial (copy) (copy) (copy)

A portion of Syar quarry is seen from the air. 

A fight over expanding Syar quarry near the city of Napa is heating up in the courthouse two years after the Napa County Board of Supervisors approved the project.

The venue is different, but the players and concerns are familiar. Stop Syar Expansion on Nov. 16 filed a 50-page opening brief in Napa County Superior Court opposing a bigger quarry.

“The project would emit harmful particulate matter and greenhouse gases and increase heavy truck trips, water use, blasting, oak woodland deforestation and the cutting of steep benches into rolling hills,” the papers stated.

In 2016, Napa County looked at these issues in draft and final environmental impact reports totaling more than 1,600 pages. All concerns could be reduced to “less than significant levels,” the reports concluded and the Board of Supervisors agreed.

The Stop Syar Expansion lawsuit against the county argues otherwise. Just as during county hearings, opponents are raising such issues as cancer-causing diesel fumes and health-damaging respirable crystalized silica drifting from the quarry over neighborhoods.

“It requires the citizens to get involved and urge or force the county to be reasonable in its oversight of a major polluter,” said Kathy Felch, a member of Stop Syar Expansion who lives near the quarry.

In contrast, during the 2016 hearings Syar officials depicted the quarry as being “a responsible neighbor” with a “robust and effective compliance program.” Syar officials couldn’t be reached to comment on the lawsuit, which is against the county.

Napa County and Syar are to file their responses to the Stop Syar Expansion brief by Jan. 16. A hearing is scheduled for April 5. The court will decide whether the county’s environmental impact report is adequate or needs more work for the project approval to stand.

Syar quarry can be seen from south Napa in hills near Skyline Wilderness Park and Napa State Hospital. Various companies since the 1920s have mined this area for basalt and other rock for roads and construction projects.

The Board of Supervisors in October 2016 granted Syar a 35-year permit to expand the 497-acre quarry by 106 acres and increase production from 1 million tons annually to 1.3 million tons. Syar officials said the quarry needs to grow to avoid running out of basalt.

Among other things, the Stop Syar Expansion lawsuit claims that the county’s environmental impact report failed to disclose crystalline silica emissions at the Syar quarry. Rather, the report based its estimate on data from other quarries, the recently filed brief said.

Stop Syar Expansion versus the County of Napa is one of two court cases involving the group and the quarry.

In 2016, Stop Syar Expansion, Napa Vision 2050, Felch and Susanne Von Rosenberg filed a separate lawsuit against Syar Industries. It alleged a constant stream of dust, particulate matter, diesel engine exhaust and toxic contaminants from the quarry impact health, safety and property values in nearby neighborhoods.

Proposition 65 requires businesses that expose people to carcinogens to provide a warning, such as posting signs and distributing notices. Syar has failed to do so since at least Aug. 25, 2013, the lawsuit said.

The plaintiffs agreed last summer to dismiss their complaint. That came after they demanded information from data through the court discovery process.

“We realized after they had kept their production levels to such a low level they were not violating Proposition 65,” Felch said. “Our lawsuit was based on data they had provided for the EIR (environmental impact report).”

Syar submits its production levels to the county, but the county treats this data as proprietary information, Felch said. The public can’t review it.

“The only way we can know what the production levels are is to file a lawsuit,” Felch said, adding this is not a good way for citizens to monitor what’s going on at the quarry. Stop Syar Expansion could file a another lawsuit if new facts arise indicating the quarry is violating Proposition 65 in the future, she said.

That dismissed Proposition 65 lawsuit came with a potentially expensive footnote for the plaintiffs.

During the legal wrangling, Felch, Vision 2050 President Dan Mufson and others were ordered by the court to provide years of their emails and correspondences involving Syar at Syar’s request. Syar was to pay the cost for Robert Half Legal to screen the voluminous materials, with plaintiffs saying the bill comes to $65,000.

But the plaintiffs subsequently reached and signed agreements with Syar to dismiss the case. Those agreements call for Syar to pay each plaintiff $5,000 in satisfaction of damages, penalties, costs, expenses, interest and attorney’s fees.

Napa County Superior Court concluded the plaintiffs in these release agreements waived their right to recover costs from Syar for the use of Robert Half Legal.

“In attempt to show that a decision against them would be unjust, the plaintiffs assert they do not deserve to be financially punished because they worked with Robert Half Legal as directed by court order,” the court wrote. “But the assertion ignores the plain language of the release.”

That won’t be the final word. The plaintiffs have appealed this part of the case to the First District Court of Appeal.

“It’s a huge bill for unnecessary work that we said all along is irrelevant,” Felch said.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.