By Cornelia de Bruin
Triplicate staff writer
Until the Army Corps of Engineers, National Marine Fisheries Services and nine other federal state and county agencies cease consideration and take action, Freeman Rock of Brookings can't mine the gravel it supplies to contractors for concrete.
The delay has left the company one of two "major" suppliers of river aggregate essentially fiscally hamstrung in the sense that it lacks the constant supply of the gravel it mines and sells to contractors for the concrete they use.
Freeman Rock employs 35 people, does business with at least 330 clients and is one of two main suppliers of aggregate to Northern California and Southern Oregon.
Clean, uncontaminated river gravel is one of the three ingredients used to make concrete.
"We have a source in the flood plane that we can mine as a backup," Yocum said.
The company mined gravel from the Chetco River before the agencies curtailed its work Oct. 18.
U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., assured representatives of Freeman Rock Monday of his ongoing efforts to prod the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Marine Fisheries Service and nine other federal, state and county agencies into action.
His promises, however, stopped short of intervention.
At a June 28 Curry County Planning Commission meeting, Freeman Rock requested an increase in the amount of gravel it mines from the Rogue River from 40,000 to 100,000 cubic yards per year for five years.
Commissioners approved neither the longer time nor the increased amount.
"We did not have enough information for me to feel comfortable about approving it," Commissioner Diana St. Marie said. "They also had a reclamation plan, a real good plan, but we didn't have a copy of it."
The increased amount of Rogue River gravel would have supplied contractors in the Gold Beach, Ore. area
Freeman is appealing the commission's decision and seeking a Curry County Commission hearing on the issues.
But until the 11 regulatory agencies give Freeman the go-ahead to mine gravel from the Chetco, it must rely on stockpiled gravel to supply the concrete-specific commodity to contractors in the Brookings and Del Norte County areas.
If the company's requests are not granted, Freeman employee Yocum said the company will edge closer to laying off workers.
"There could be layoffs in the industry as well," he said.
Curry County Commission Chairwoman Marlyn Schafer said the delay in mining and its resulting effect on employee income is generating "a domino effect" in the county's economy.
"It's not just the jobs, it's the cost of the product," Schafer said. "This is a huge issue for us, and it's across the board; any job that is lost in this county has a big impact these people shop locally."
The order came after the company had ceased its mining activities for the season. Its regular mining schedule would normally already have resumed with summer upon the area.
Although David Freeman said that needs are being met "at a comparable price," Freeman Rock's problems remain.
"We are presently shut down by the Army Corps," Freeman Rock employee Bill Yocum told Sen. Smith in Brookings. "The Corps says that its authority is through the Clean Water Act, although that's been challenged, but they're analyzing (us) while we're shut down."
The Corps has promised the rock company its "paperwork" by August, Yocum said. Even that delay, however, has the potential to erode Freeman Rock's revenues by about a third. Its mining is done during the "dry season" after spring run-off in the Chetco River ends lasting roughly from July to November.
The company is one of two "major producers" on the Oregon Coast, Yocum told Smith.
Bottom line for him and his boss is that the Corps' actions will create a major economic problem: Freeman Rock's prices for sand and gravel will double when its present supplies are depleted and it has to import the two materials to fill customers' needs.
When that happens, Yocum said that the regulatory agency will have "balanced the economy with ecology."
"This is all related to making room for people, too," Smith said. "You've been winning; you're in the process of finding the middle ground, but it impacts the prices we pay in the process."
Smith recently held a town meeting in Reedsport, Ore., where he discussed the Chetco River gravel situation with representatives of the Army Corps and National Marine Fisheries Service.
"I told them to work them out," he said. "I'm in contact with them constantly to keep pushing this process, but the result has be be able to be defended in the federal court system because that's where it's going to wind up."
In the meantime, however, 35 employees' jobs continue to teeter on the precipice that divides Curry County's economic stability.
In a not-too-veiled threat, Smith pointed out that the Senate is not without the power it can use to prod the two federal regulatory agencies into action.
"We fund them," he said. "We'll keep the pressure on them."
The effect of Freeman Rock's delayed gravel mining season is tempered by the presence of a second supplier: Freeman Contracting, Inc., a company that is also based in Brookings, is owned by David Freeman, brother to Freeman Rock's owner Ted Freeman.
"I'm not here to pick on my brother, but I have another source," David Freeman said. "My supplier is in Gold Beach."
Freeman Contracting, Inc. is leafletting Del Norte County through Del Norte Builders Exchange.
"We started putting their flyers in our newsletter this month," said Janie Clark, of Del Norte Business Exchange.
The builders exchange is a nonprofit organization that was formed to organize the common business interests of contractors by seeking to maintain a high standard of ethical conduct and promote fair competition. The result, Clark said, serves the public's best interest.
More than 30 licensed contractors belong to the group.
Freeman Rock's gravel operations are regulated by:
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Environmental Protection Agency
U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service
Oregon Department of State Lands
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
Oregon Department of Environmental Quality
Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development
Oregon Safety and Health Administration
Curry County Planning Department
Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industry
SOURCE: Bill Yocum