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Lawsuit looms over Lafarge gravel mine

The Lafarge gravel mine has been in Placitas for more than 25 years. It provides materials for residential, commercial and public works uses, including the I-25/U.S. 550 interchange makeover and the Paseo del Norte/I-25 reconstruction project in Albuquerque. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

The Lafarge gravel mine has been in Placitas for more than 25 years. It provides materials for residential, commercial and public works uses, including the I-25/U.S. 550 interchange makeover and the Paseo del Norte/I-25 reconstruction project in Albuquerque. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Dick Ulmer’s spacious six-year-old custom home sits atop a hill in Placitas that overlooks a massive gravel mining operation alive with the day-long grinding sound of machinery.

Lafarge is the largest supplier of construction materials in the U.S. and Canada, selling products used in residential, commercial and public works projects, according to the company’s website.

The company has been extracting gravel and sand from a several-hundred-acre site in Placitas about 1.5 miles northeast of the Interstate 25/N.M. 165 intersection for more than 25 years under agreements first with the town of Bernalillo and later with Sandoval County.

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Residents of the half-dozen upmarket subdivisions that have grown up around the gravel pit say the intensity of the operation appears to have accelerated in the last couple of years, with work extending into the weekend and starting earlier in the mornings.

They have complained to Sandoval County staffers and the commission about noise, dust and gravel debris on the roads.

“It’s really making it miserable out here,” said Ulmer, who is president of the Anasazi Trails & Meadows Home Owners Association.

Dick Ulmer looks toward the Lafarge gravel mine from the driveway of his Anasazi Meadows home in Placitas recently. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Dick Ulmer looks toward the Lafarge gravel mine from the driveway of his Anasazi Meadows home in Placitas recently. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

The Journal contacted Trevor Tipotsh, general manager of the Lafarge office in Albuquerque, asking if the company had expanded its hours of operation in the recent past. Tipotsh did not answer directly, but arranged for the company to issue a statement.

The statement didn’t address whether activity levels had increased but said Lafarge is supplying material from the Placitas site for many purposes, including the Interstate 25/U.S. 550 interchange makeover in Bernalillo, which started in early 2013, and the Paseo del Norte/I-25 reconstruction project in Albuquerque, which started last fall.

Residents’ concerns have led to a legal dispute between Lafarge and Sandoval County.

In response to residents’ complaints last year, county staffers inspected the Lafarge site. Based on their observations, the county sent a letter on June 26, 2013, notifying Lafarge that it was violating the county’s comprehensive zoning ordinance by mining and processing materials outside areas allowed in 1988 by Bernalillo and “grandfathered” by the county in 2008.

The county’s Notice of Violation letter gave Lafarge 30 days to remedy the situation.

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Lafarge appealed the notice, saying the Placitas operation conforms “completely with relevant Sandoval County approvals.” The company maintained that the grandfathering approval superseded the 1988 document and didn’t carry the same restrictions.

The assistant county attorney wrote to Lafarge lawyers declining to accept the appeal, saying the violation notice “is not a type of action that triggers a right to appeal.”

Lafarge sued the county in August, asking the state District Court to order the county to accept the appeal. The case was referred to a Judge James Lawrence Sanchez in Los Lunas who held a hearing on Feb. 19, but he has not yet issued an order.

“Our concern is that this is dragging on and on,” said Orin Safier of the Eastern Sandoval County Association, which advocates for Placitas residents.

Residents, like Ulmer, bought their properties believing the gravel mine had a limited lifespan.

“That was the common understanding here,” Ulmer said.

Homes in Anasazi Meadows and other subdivisions around the gravel mine, including Sundance Mesa, Tierra Madre and Placitas Trails, typically sell for between $400,000 and $1 million, according to Tom Ashe, who developed the area.

Ashe said he always told prospective buyers about the mine and advised them to do their due diligence, but he understood that there was a deadline to end mining activities.

“Documents over the years led us all to believe that they (Lafarge) would be out by 2015,” Ashe said.

For example, a letter Ashe received in 2005 from Kevin Black, a general manager with Lafarge Southwest, in response to concerns about the mining said, “gravel mining activities are an interim land use.” Black’s letter also stated, “Our current agreement stipulates extraction activities to 2015, which will utilize the majority of the property.”

Neither the 1988 approval from Bernalillo nor the 2008 “grandfathering” letter from Sandoval County contains a reference to a date when mining activities were supposed to stop.

Asked by the Journal if there was a 2015 deadline for mining activities to cease, Lafarge emailed a response that said, “To Lafarge’s knowledge there are no documents indicating that mining operations will cease on a designated date at the Lafarge Placitas site.”

The company’s emailed statement said Lafarge “looks forward to continue its contribution to the community’s economy and remaining an active participant in the community for years to come.”

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