New dust-up surrounds Utah gravel pits: Bill seeks to limit ability to regulate them; critics say lawmaker has a conflict

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Geneva Rock's operations at Point of the Mountain, straddling Utah and Salt Lake counties, Tuesday Sept. 22, 2015.

Critics of a bill that would limit the ability of cities and counties to regulate gravel pits contend that its House sponsor, Morgan County rancher Logan Wilde, has an undisclosed conflict of interest because he is leasing land to a quarry operator.

Wilde, R-Croydon, owns a one-fifth interest in the 17,000-acre M.R. Wilde & Sons Ranch, according to public disclosures on file with the Utah Legislature. Not disclosed is the ranch’s lease agreement allowing Holcim Inc. to use land adjacent to its limestone quarry, known as Devil’s Slide, which the cement maker hopes to expand.

In a Facebook post Saturday, critics of Wilde’s HB288 alleged that the lawmaker stands to benefit personally from the legislation.

“He needed to disclose that he had this lease on his property adjacent to the cement factory [to support] surface materials extraction,” said Tony Nelson, who manages the Facebook page Point of the Mountain Politics. “If he wasn’t trying to hide something, he would have said it. I believe it’s a conflict and the people of Utah deserve to know what is behind this legislation. There are so many gaping holes in Utah’s conflict-of-interest laws you can drive a gravel truck through it. The Legislature knows that and they use it [to] their benefit.”

In a response post, Wilde acknowledged his ranch’s arrangement with Holcim but said the Devil’s Slide quarry extracts limestone for cement production, not sand and gravel.

“This is another attempt to bully me into dropping this bill. I have even received threats regarding this bill,” Wilde wrote. “HB288 doesn’t change any mining laws, so there is no conflict with the proposed legislation.”

Holcim and its parent, LafargeHolcim U.S., however, produce in other locations an array of construction materials, including concrete and aggregates that rely on sand and gravel.

A voicemail left with Wilde was not returned Monday.

Holcim operates the cement plant at Devil’s Slide on Lost Creek Road just north of Interstate 84, cooking limestone and sandstone it quarries nearby into building material. The firm has recently notified the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (DOGM) of an intent to expand its mine.

According to the DOGM filings, up to 185 acres of the Wilde ranch would be used for dumping the quarry’s “overburden,” the earthen material lying over the limestone vein Holcim is mining.

Wilde’s HB288 touches upon a growing controversy along the Wasatch Front, where sand and gravel operations are expanding to support Utah’s rapid growth. Now residential areas are pressing against these quarries, such as Geneva Rock’s Point of the Mountain operation in Draper, which are themselves growing. Besides the noise and scarred hillsides, these operations kick up dust and silica that can harm human health.

Some cities push for restrictions, and the industry’s critics want quarries moved to less-populated areas.

"The scaffolding moves away when you finish building. Gravel pits are the same,” Draper resident Adrian Dybwad told the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Friday. “When the city is built, the gravel pit moves out of town to a place that does not affect people’s health and does not affect the beauty of the area, which is why people want to live there.”

Wilde counters that moving quarries could increase environmental impacts and construction costs.

“That isn’t fair to the rest of us, and would only increase the pressure to open more of these operations in our communities,” Wilde wrote. “If we move gravel to outside communities, costs will triple: a large portion of gravel costs are travel time. If we increase travel time, it only increases our air pollution and with that we increase congestion on freeways. That logic seems to defeat the purpose.”

Wilde’s bill, which defines sand, gravel and rock aggregate as “critical infrastructure materials,” would set aside special zones that protect existing extraction operations. Operators would have a right to enlarge, upgrade, boost production, and alter methods of excavation, regardless of prohibitions or limits imposed by a city or county. The operator would also have the right to expand permitted operations onto contiguous property, as long as gravel extraction conforms to the zoning.

“We recognizes the value of companies like Geneva Rock, but, as a city, our greatest responsibly is the health of our citizens and continued economic success of our city and our state,” Draper City Councilwoman Tasha Lowery told lawmakers at the Friday hearing. “Local land-use authority is central to our continued success. We know how to do it well. Taking local zoning authority away from cities would hurt all of us.”

At the hearing, Wilde assured that the bill’s intention is not to step on local zoning and permitting but to protect the existing industry that provides materials considered critical to Utah’s prosperity.

“The concern is to keep the cost of infrastructure down," he said, “so we can afford to have a quality community here.”

The bill envisions five-member county advisory panels drawn from representatives of the county, its road authority, industry and the Utah Department of Transportation. Not represented would be the environmental community and local communities affected by gravel operations.

The House committee declined to act on the bill Friday to give its members time to digest a substitute measure Wilde offered and the many proposed amendments that came in late.