Gypsum plant expansion raises neighbors' concerns

May 23, 2002|By LAURA MITCHELL

Staff Writer

Residents of Ocotillo and desert conservationists spoke against U.S. Gypsum's Plaster City expansion project at a meeting Monday, expressing concern about the expansion's effect on Ocotillo's groundwater level and endangered desert animals.

Project opponents also were concerned with the legality of the process since environmental studies will be worked on this summer but the plant's expansion is already completed.

Wednesday's public scoping meeting in El Centro was scheduled by the county and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as part of the process to study the environmental impacts of the plant's expansion.


Generally, state and federal environmental regulations require environmental impact studies be completed before construction starts.

In 1998 the county Board of Supervisors decided the plant's expansion, as originally proposed, would not have a significant environmental impact so it bypassed the environmental study process, Desert Protective Council conservation coordinator Terry Weiner said before the meeting.

The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit but lost and U.S. Gypsum went ahead with its expansion. The Sierra Club won on appeal and the court ordered the environmental impact study and report but by then the plant was almost completed, Weiner said.

In addition, U.S. Gypsum filed for bankruptcy in June 2001, allowing the company to circumvent environmental laws and regulations, she said.

U.S. Gypsum has been at the Plaster City location for more than 55 years, making wallboard, plaster and agricultural-grade gypsum. Plaster City is about 18 miles west of El Centro and two miles north of Interstate 8.

U.S. Gypsum's Plaster City plant manager Bill Castrey said the expansion is necessary to meet higher market demands.

The plant had 325 employees before the expansion but now has 410 employees and is still not at capacity, Castrey said.

Ocotillo resident Edie Harmon said the expansion affects critical habitat area for the endangered bighorn sheep and the desert pupfish.

Harmon said the expansion also will impact habitat for the flat-tailed horned lizard, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to be added on the threatened species list.

She also said U.S. Gypsum should have flow meters on all of its pumping wells and the information from the meters should be publicly disclosed.

The plant's expansion will draw more water from the Ocotillo and Coyote Wells groundwater, which it shares with residents of Ocotillo. The expansion calls for an increase from 400 to 767 acre-feet of water a year.

Harmon said groundwater in Ocotillo is limited and with the expansion, U.S. Gypsum should use Colorado River water provided by the Imperial Irrigation District.

San Diego resident James Ricker said groundwater from the Ocotillo area goes to Mexico and the environmental report should address the water use issue with a binational border agency.

Harriet Allen of San Diego said she is concerned the expansion comes too close to the Anza-Borrego State Park. Officials there, she added, are developing a general plan for the park and are probably unaware U.S. Gypsum will come within 300 feet of it.

People at the Borrego Chamber of Commerce should also be made aware of the expansion, Allen said.

The deadline to comment on the environmental process is June 10.

>> Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or

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