UPDATE, Friday morning: The Planning Commission last night voted 3-2 with two abstentions to accept the project. The issue will now go before the Board of Supervisors.

We’ll have a more extensive update later this morning.

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Original post:

Mercer-Fraser wants to build a 5,000 square-foot marijuana manufacturing facility on a 13.5 acre parcel along the Mad River between Glendale Dr. and West End Rd. | Image courtesy County of Humboldt.

Tonight the Humboldt County Planning Commission will consider a zoning change that would allow Eureka construction company Mercer-Fraser to build and operate a 5,000-square-foot commercial cannabis manufacturing facility between Arcata and Blue Lake, on a 13.5-acre parcel that hugs the north bank of the Mad River. 

In a letter submitted last week, the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District (HBMWD) urges the Planning Commission to deny the company’s request, saying the proposed facility, which would use volatile solvents to produce various cannabis products, could “adversely affect the domestic drinking water supply for nearly two thirds of the population of Humboldt County.”

The water district maintains a series of four pump houses — or Ranney collectors — along this stretch of the Mad River. These pump houses draw water up from the aquifer through the sands and gravel of the riverbed, providing filtered drinking water to residents of Eureka, Arcata, McKinleyville, Blue Lake, Manila and other communities in the north bay region.

In his letter to the Planning Commission, HBMWD General Manager John Friedenbach notes that two of the agency’s pump houses sit on parcels directly adjacent to Mercer-Fraser’s property, with a third pump house just 1,570 feet downstream. 

“Consequently, any contamination originating from the Applicant’s parcel would immediately impact up to 3 (75%) of our domestic water supply sources,” Friedenbach writes.

Mercer-Fraser is currently operating a surface mining and processing operation on the property, which is located entirely within the Mad River’s 100-year flood zone. The company is asking the county to change the parcel’s zoning from agricultural to heavy industrial, and in a staff report (available here) the county says this rezone would “better reflect the existing use of the property as Mercer-Fraser Company’s gravel yard and concrete batch plant operations.”

The proposed cannabis manufacturing facility would be located on the eastern part of the parcel, with frontage on Glendale Drive. According to Mercer-Fraser’s plan of operation, the facility might operate 24 hours a day during “peak season,” and it would be maintained by one to four full-time employees.

The 5,000-square-foot building would include an extraction room, a packaging room, truck loading/unloading areas, and commercial kitchen facilities to produce weed edibles. “The applicant is proposing to produce cannabis concentrate using water-base, food-based and solvent-based extraction methods,” the staff report notes. 

That latter process would involve volatile solvents including butane, propane and carbon dioxide, among others. The finished cannabis products would then be sold wholesale to state-licensed distributors. Mercer-Fraser’s facility would not be open to the public or accept visitors.

The staff report recommends the project be given the green light with some conditions of approval, including establishing a closed-loop system for all solvent-based manufacturing and installing security fencing to protect against trespassing and vandalism at the site. They also recommend that Mercer-Fraser provide a notice of field or stream alteration to the Department of Fish and Wildlife so that agency can determine whether an on-site well is connected to the Mad River. 

The zone reclassification would have to be approved by the Board of Supervisors before Mercer-Fraser could build and operate the cannabis manufacturing facility.

County staff recommends that the Planning Commission find that there is “no substantial evidence that the proposed project will have a significant effect on the environment,” but Friedenbach begs to differ.

In his letter, the water district chief notes that there’s “ample supply of suitable property” zoned for heavy industrial uses elsewhere in the county, and he insists, “There is no public policy justification for this zoning change.”

Our District is adamantly opposed to heavy industrial development adjacent to our source water intake infrastructure located in and along the Mad River for obvious health and safety reasons,” the letter states.

A message left this morning for Mercer-Fraser President Justin Zabel was not returned by the time of this posting.

The Planning Commission meeting is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Board of Supervisors’ chambers of the Humboldt County Courthouse.