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Bill would ease Montana gravel mining regulations

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | March 19, 2021 4:11 PM

Flathead Valley landowners and neighborhood advocates are among those opposing a bill in the Montana Senate that would ease regulations on open-pit gravel mining.

House Bill 599, sponsored by state Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, passed the House on a 67-32 vote early this month and received a hearing in the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Monday.

Proponents of the bill, including representatives of the Montana Contractors Association, said it would remove red tape and redundancies to speed up the permitting process for open-pit gravel mining, making the final product cheaper for use in roads and other infrastructure.

"It's going to make it easier for contractors, counties, landowners, anybody that needs gravel as a resource for infrastructure," said Rob Koelzer, of Schellinger Construction Co. "It's going to save taxpayers money. It's going to save the state money, and let it get done and still be environmentally responsible."

Schellinger Construction runs four gravel pits in Flathead County, including one in the West Valley area that the company has sought to outfit for asphalt production, fueling opposition from neighbors and leaders of the nearby West Valley School concerned about traffic and pollution. One neighbor of the pit testified against the bill during Monday's hearing.

Other opponents, including Citizens for a Better Flathead, say the bill would roll back water quality and fire mitigation safeguards, limit public notice and input on gravel pit projects, and eliminate the state's ability to regulate noise and visual disruptions, effectively allowing gravel pits to operate around the clock.

"We certainly recognize the importance of gravel mining to provide the infrastructure needs of our communities," Mayre Flowers, a Kalispell-based planning consultant with the Montana Smart Growth Coalition, told the Senate committee. "But we also believe that clear standards need to ensure that mining processes are given the thoughtful review and robust public comments are site-specific. We believe the bill unnecessarily removes the state's ability to mitigate important aspects of gravel operations."

“THIS IS the worst gravel pit bill I have seen in decades," said Anne Hedges, director of policy and legislative affairs for the Montana Environmental Information Center.

Hedges noted the bill would eliminate the process whereby the state Department of Environmental Quality reviews how gravel pits would affect sedimentation on neighboring properties, as well as existing requirements for fire mitigation.

"One of the reasons we haven't had rangeland fires, perhaps, is because DEQ does do fire mitigation planning upfront in the permitting process," Hedges said. "I'd say that just proves that this language actually worked."

Hedges also highlighted the effect the bill would have on state regulation of noise and visual disruptions.

"This is the only place where DEQ gets to limit the hours of operation of a gravel mine," she said. "If they don't have this, people who live near gravel mines could have to put up with 24/7, 365-days-a-year operations. That doesn't seem fair to the people who were there already."

The bill also would define an "occupied dwelling unit" as "a structure with permanent water and sewer facilities that is used as a home, residence or sleeping place by at least one person who maintains a household that is lived in as a primary residence." The bill would ease permit requirements where there are fewer than 10 such dwellings within a half mile of the project area.

MIKE NEWTON, operations manager for Fisher Sand & Gravel Co., which operates in Glendive, Billings and Livingston, said it's important that state law contains such a definition because companies often seek to notify the owners of abandoned farmsteads and other unoccupied structures.

"With this, realize that 85% of the gravel pits within Montana are rural," he said.

Newton also dismissed concerns about fires spreading outside of gravel pits.

"I've never heard of a fire that happened on a site spreading anywhere," he said. "We had a screen catch fire, and it didn't go anywhere."

Abigail St. Lawrence, a lobbyist for the Montana Building Industry Association, Montana Trout Unlimited and the Montana Association of Realtors, also testified against the bill, saying it would "limit not only housing developments in existence but also land available for development down the road."

St. Lawrence said the environmental review process can be overburdensome for gravel companies. "However, review does have its place, and particularly the opportunity for adjacent landowners to have notice and to have input," she said.

"What is needed to refine the review process is a scalpel," she said. "House Bill 599 is a sledgehammer."

Reporter Chad Sokol can be reached at 758-4434 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com