The running joke in Las Placitas is that windshields last less than a year, but a new turn in the story behind those cracks has people in the community far from laughing.
“We’re really saying that gravel mining and residential neighborhoods are highly incompatible,” says Judith Hendry, vice president of Las Placitas Association. “Another mine really would be a hardship for us out here.”
Hendry and other residents recently came together to protest a proposed expansion of a gravel mine in Las Placitas that is run by Lafarge Southwest Inc.
Though the government agency managing the land eyed by Lafarge says any expansion will wait until 2009, the idea has once again pitted a rapidly growing community against a company supplying construction materials that many in New Mexico need.
Hendry fears more mining would bring more gravel-delivery trucks, and with them, more of the windshield-cracking rocks and a worsening of traffic that has her waiting for four changes of the traffic light at N.M. 165 and I-25.
There are days, she says, when dust from the earth-cutting operations rises up like a curtain, obscuring the desert vista that draws many to the rural outpost of around 6,000 people – nearly double what it was six years ago.
She decries the noise, the crunching of large rocks into small ones, the metallic grumble of earth riding a conveyor belt, the beep-beep-beep of tractors in reverse as they prepare to dig into the sides of hills like forks into cake.
She worries about the view those tractors leave behind: hills sliced to reveal layers of rich earth containing the just-right rocks that fill civilization’s hunger for concrete, for roads, for roofs.
“We’re having to deal every day with the effects of these mines,” Hendry says. “It goes well beyond just a not-in-my-backyard response.”
Lafarge wants to move into 170 acres belonging to the Bureau of Land Management because the current mine will run out eventually, explains M.L. Tucker, regional manager of public and governmental affairs with the company.
“As the resource becomes more depleted, then we look to where there are additional resources nearby,” she says.
And it’s not just any resources; the rock needs to be a certain type to go into asphalt and concrete. It’s the type found on the BLM land, she says.
“Our business has a very unique challenge, which is we can only be located where the product geologically is found,” she says. “There are many people who are well-educated who think all you do is move the dirt away at any given location and there’s the same rock wherever you go. That just is not the case.”
Citing concerns with the competition, she declined to say how long the current 430-acre operation would last. She wouldn’t say how many tons of material move through the site for the same reason.
She did say that Lafarge employs about 36 people at its current operation and has worked with community members to address their concerns.
She says the company sprays water on the roads and equipment to cut down on the dust. Measures have been taken to capture emissions from the processing plant, she says.
She knows of the concerns about traffic but no order has been made to send gravel-delivery trucks to a different I-25 on-ramp in out-of-the-way Algodones.
“Any time we would send them in an entirely opposite direction, or a direction that’s farther, it takes away our competitiveness if we have to charge extra for them to go out of their way,” she says. “It takes longer to deliver the product, and it also increases the price.”
Much of the tension is due to the new homes coming with Las Placitas’ rocketing population.
In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau put the population 3,452. It’s now more than 6,000, according to a news release from Las Placitas Association.
As the community grows, more cars share the road with gravel trucks. Houses approach the mining areas, of which there are three, according to Hendry.
The first Lafarge mine permitted on BLM land came in 1998, a move that was protested by local residents, the city of Albuquerque and Las Placitas Association, according to a news release from the association.
There were many reasons why the mine was opposed, one of them being Sandoval County’s plan for the area. It permits agricultural and residential development.
However, the 20-year-old document used by BLM to make decisions about land use – called a resource management plan – allows gravel mines.
The mine went up.
The proposed expansion will have to wait, according to Edwin Singleton, district manager of the BLM’s Albuquerque District Office.
That’s because he wants an update to the resource management plan that will reflect the area’s growth.
“It’s not rural as it was when the plan was written,” he says. “The area has changed.”
So, he says, until the plan is updated, no application for an expansion will be looked at.
Carol Parker says she’ll believe it when sees it.
She’s a former president of Las Placitas Association and a resident in the community since 1992.
Her doubt arises from her experience with previous announcements that a change to the resource management plan was on the way.
There were attempts to get money for an update in 1999 and 2000, according to an association news release. Another attempt in 2001 showed some promise in 2002, but that fell through, too.
“At what point do you go, `No thanks, I’ve heard that story before?’ ” Parker says.
Singleton explains it’s tough to get money – $1.5 million to $2 million is needed – for the plan update because BLM divisions around the country vie for a limited amount of funds from the federal government.
He has heard suggestions that the plan be specifically amended to change mining allowances in Placitas.
Due to the challenge of getting funds, he says it’s better to do the entire BLM area – which covers about 1 million acres – at once.
That’s just what is happening now, he says.
In fall of next year, he expects the BLM to hold public meetings on how the plan needs to change. By 2008, a draft should be ready. By 2009, a final version should be good to go.
Tucker with Lafarge says waiting for the update doesn’t change the company’s stance.
“We’ll still work the current site, and we’re still interested in the BLM land,” she says.
In the meantime, Hendry, Parker and other Placitas residents watch, wait and organize.
“I don’t really think it’s just a Lafarge problem,” Parker says. “It’s a mining problem. It’s hard to do mining in a way that’s compatible with residential development.”
Tribune Managing Editor Kate Nelson is president of Las Placitas Association and recused herself from involvement in this story.