Mercer-Fraser pulls Mad River pot plant plan

The defunct Mercer-Fraser project site along the Mad River. Yellow circles are aquifer wells from which the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District draws local drinking water.

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

GLENDALE – Heeding concerns about potential contamination of drinking water, the Mercer-Fraser company has withdrawn a cannabis manufacturing project whose approval also included a controversial rezoning.

Fifth District Supervisor and Board of Supervisors Chair Ryan Sundberg announced last week that both the project and the rezoning are withdrawn.

And in an interview, he said speculation that the project could re-emerge after the June election, when voters will decide on his re-election, is off-base.

“I even wrote on the Times-Standard Facebook page, under an article about this, that I will resign if (the project) comes back up any time after the election,” he said.

Mercer-Fraser proposed to operate a 5,000-square-foot cannabis manufacturing facility at its 13.5 acre Glendale area site bordering the Mad River. The site hosts the company’s gravel mining and processing operation

More controversial than the project itself is an associated rezoning of the site from agricultural-general to resource-related industrial, a heavy industrial category. The change is directed in the recently-approved version of the county’s General Plan, as supervisors want to make Mercer-Fraser’s gravel processing operation consistent with zoning.

Prior to a close Planning Commission vote to approve the project and rezone last January, John Friedenbach, general manager of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, warned that the rezoning could lead to contamination of drinking water if heavy industrial use is done at the site in the future.

The district’s collectors and a surface intake are near the site and Friedenbach told the commission a water well is “a direct conduit for the source groundwater for our district.”

After the Planning Commission’s approvals, the district’s board of directors voted to file appeals to the Board of Supervisors.

It soon became obvious that the proposed changes at the site wouldn’t be affirmed. “The community has pretty much made it clear that this is not a project that they’re interested in supporting,” Sundberg said.

Mercer-Fraser agreed to withdraw the permit and, later, the rezone after negotiating with the district and the county, he continued.

The heavy industrial General Plan designation remains, however, but Sundberg said ways to limit or block projects that could pose drinking water threats are being considered.

The designation was applied because Mercer-Fraser’s gravel mining has been ongoing for decades. Considered a legal non-conforming use, the gravel processing now is aligned with the General Plan’s land use designation.

Sundberg said applying special conditions or creating a conservation easement would respond to the concerns about future heavy industrial development if the site is eventually rezoned.

Friedenbach credited Mercer-Fraser for its willingness to respond to the concerns and Sundberg for his work on resolving the matter.

He said the issue has been adequately addressed but more work needs to be done. “I expect that we’ll have further discussions and I welcome the opportunity to have further discussions with the Board of Supervisors on the bigger issue of appropriate zoning in watersheds that are used specifically for drinking water,” he continued.

During last January’s Planning Commission hearing, Mercer-Fraser’s gravel mining facility was described as being a far more intense industrial use than the proposed cannabis facility.

There was talk of tens of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel being stored at the site but when asked about that, Friedenbach said the descriptions are inaccurate.

“There was some fact-checking of that comment,” Friedenbach continued. He said that a 30,000 gallon fuel tank did exist at the site at one time but it was decommissioned in 2012.

A much smaller tank is now there. Although fuel storage is “a perfect example of items that would be of concern to us” in the future, Friedenbach noted that Mercer-Fraser has been operating at the site long before the water district was formed in the 1950s and has been “a safe operator.”

A call to Justin Zabel, the company’s president, was not responded to by press time.



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