Can gravel mining and world-class cherry orchards coexist in Utah?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hopper trucks leave the Keigley Quarry near acres of tart cherry orchards, Sept. 29, 2020. Residents and fruit growers living and working in close proximity to multiple sand and gravel quarries on West Mountain are concerned about their air quality and fruit production in this bucolic area near Payson.

Payson • Ryan Rowley’s orchards occupy a special piece of Utah where elevation, soils and topography collude to create an ideal environment for growing fruit, especially the tart cherries that have long been associated with the family name.

But trouble lurks over this high-desert Eden, which also supplies Utah builders with a mineral bounty needed for construction.

“You think you would be on a nice country road, but there are trucks and nonstop traffic,” Rowley says over the roar of passing gravel haulers on a recent morning as he inspects his orchards near busy quarries on the southern tip of West Mountain. “You can see the dust on the leaves. The trees look sickly. It cuts down on photosynthesis, the absorption of sun the trees are able to capture.”

Rowley rubs a thumb across leaves on a recently harvested cherry tree to highlight the damage from mites that proliferate in dusty conditions. Some trees have already shed half their leaves — and it’s barely October.

“The leaves are falling a month early. When it does rain, it won’t capture as much moisture,” he says as he shakes the branch, releasing a cloud of dust as if he were airing out a filthy carpet. “We were wearing masks way before it was cool.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Third-generation tart cherry grower Ryan Rowley along 12000 South in Payson, Sept. 29, 2020. Hopper trucks leaving the nearby Staker Parson Keigley Quarry loaded with road base materials spread dust throughout his orchards. Excess dust has lead to an uncontrollable spider mite infestation that feed on the dusty cherry leaves and cause the leaves to fall off the trees prematurely.

The dust is a testament to a mounting conflict in this still-bucolic corner of ever-sprawling Utah County where sand and gravel quarries extract aggregates to feed a boom in real estate development and road building, pitting important Utah industries against one another. While the farmers complain the state is favoring the construction industry, quarry operators say they are heavily regulated by multiple agencies and their impacts are “minimal.”

"We have limited access to these materials to support the growing economy of Utah, so there is a lot of debate over how do we go forward. Those issues are in so many places in the state. A lot of it is driven by demand,” Stewart Lamb, director of business development with the Kilgore Cos., said a recent hearing over an expansion of its Benjamin quarry. “If there was no growth in Utah County, there wouldn’t be seven or eight mines on West Mountain. How we go forward as a state? There is some really difficult discussions going on and some sincere attempts to make it so we can be sustainable as an industry.”

A few miles north of Rowley’s orchards, Benjamin residents are fighting Kilgore’s expansion, arguing increased truck traffic and fugitive dust emissions are disrupting their lives and threatening their health.

“There is nothing that addresses cumulative effects. When is it too many mines?” asks Benjamin resident Julie Sainsbury. She alleges the pit’s dust emissions are unacceptable, made worse by trucks that trail dust even when they are empty.

Seven quarries, covering about 600 acres, operate on West Mountain. Rowley’s orchards are near the entrances to the Keigley Quarry operated by Staker Parson and another called the Cherry Pit.

That the latter quarry’s name riffs on the Rowley clan’s singular product is a source of annoyance for Ryan Rowley, who fears the fugitive dust from the pits and passing trucks could doom cherry growing there.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hopper trucks leave the Keigley Quarry near acres of tart cherry orchards, Sept. 29, 2020. Residents and fruit growers living and working in close proximity to multiple sand and gravel quarries on West Mountain are concerned about their air quality and fruit production in this bucolic area near Payson.

“There’s some mornings that you can see dust coming off this hillside and filling this valley below us,” Rowley says. “Sometimes, as I’m out changing water before the sun comes up, there’s lines of trucks waiting to get up into that pit. They’re overloaded. Their fender flares are covered in gravel. That’s [what leads to] all the broken windshields we get. They’re covered in dirt. They’re not covering their loads, not washing off their trucks. And they string dirt clear down these roads. It turns into dust, and then it’s going up in the air, landing on our trees.”

While fruit growers and residents acknowledge Utah needs these materials, they complain that the gravel operations are unnecessarily jeopardizing an important agricultural industry and their peaceful quality of life. They contend the quarries and their haulers refuse to take steps that would reduce their impacts and dust levels are inadequately monitored.

The Salt Lake Tribune invited comment from officials at Staker Parson and Kilgore, the operators of the two major pits highlighted in this story, but neither supplied a response.

Foundations for growth

West Mountain quarries produce sand, gravel, crushed stone and other low-value materials used in construction and the making of concrete and asphalt. Some of this material is processed on-site, resulting in additional industrial emissions.

Across the state, nearly 300 quarries produce between 40 million and 50 million tons of aggregates a year, according to the Utah Geological Survey. The haul in 2018 was worth $286 million, or about $7 a ton.

Because such vast amounts are needed in construction jobs, it is necessary to source sand and gravel close to where it is used to keep down costs, according to Andrew Rupke, an industrial minerals geologist with the survey. In many cases, that means siting quarries near where people live and farm.

“Economically, you can’t ship it as far,” Rupke says. “They generally have to be closer to where they are used. This is happening in urban areas everywhere. As urbanization occurs, those aggregate operations move farther afield, but they cost more. There is a real tension over how we do this and do it right.”

Still, West Mountain growers argue, aggregate producers can tap suitable sand and gravel deposits elsewhere; good luck, they say, finding other places in Utah where tart cherries can be grown economically.

“They say they can’t go out anywhere else to get it. To that I say BS. They want to go only three minutes off the freeway. Well, I cannot grow fruit in Nephi [about 25 miles to the south]. It’s too cold,” says Genola fruit grower Cheryl Fowers. “You can do what you want on your property, but if you do something that harms your neighbor, you had better knock it off. It’s in their own handbook. We have big issues and they want to keep expanding and expanding.”

Aggregates come in two major forms: Sand and gravel are extracted from unconsolidated deposits that are screened and sorted into various grain sizes. Crushed stone is blasted and pulverized from bedrock, usually dolomite and limestone. West Mountain yields both types.

Conflicts abound

The tensions at West Mountain are hardly unique. Up and down the Wasatch Front, most visibly at the Geneva Rock quarry at Point of the Mountain, gravel operations are stirring up oppositions from neighbors concerned about dust, noise and truck traffic.

State law limits the opacity of quarries' dust plumes to 20%, or 10% off-site, but this standard is difficult to enforce and some critics call it “absurd.”

“It’s about as unscientific as anything you could apply to this situation,” says Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “The whole thing is slanted toward allowing these operators to do whatever they want.”

To reduce dust emissions, his group urges operators to use natural gas-powered trucks instead of diesel, to cover their loads, to clean trucks between trips, and to relocate mines to less windy and populous sites. Sand and gravel deposits can be found along 2,000 miles of Lake Bonneville’s ancient shorelines rimming the valleys of northern Utah, says John Macfarlane, a neurosurgeon on Moench’s board.

“If you go over a valley or two to the west, you can [mine] with much less effect because there is no local population,” Macfarlane says. “If they go a little farther away, they can still make their money, just not as much."

The physicians group insists the Utah Department of Environmental Quality should do more to track dust emissions, conduct more frequent quarry inspections, and establish a hotline for residents to report dust incidents.

In addition to visual impacts, the crystalline silica released when rock is pulverized poses a serious threat to human health when inhaled. Macfarlane says these sharply fractured particles can damage lung tissue and cause cancer.

All the quarries are required to submit a fugitive dust mitigation plan with DEQ, which conducts annual inspections and responds to complaints, according to agency spokesman Jared Mendenhall.

Benjamin’s plight

Most of West Mountain’s quarries are clustered on its southern tip near Payson. On the mountain’s east slope to the north, Kilgore Cos. operates the newer Benjamin Pit, now steeped in controversy over its approved expansion from 44 to 97 acres.

Kilgore opened the pit in 2011 to secure materials for reconstructing Interstate 15 through Utah County. Residents were led to believe the pit and its related asphalt plant were temporary, according to Benjamin resident Debi Brozovich, who helped start a grassroots group with Sainsbury called South Utah County Community Voice.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Benjamin residents Nita Burch, Debi Brozovich and Julie Sainsbury are leading efforts opposing the expansion of Kilgore Cos.' quarry, pictured behind them on West Mountain in southern Utah County.

In 2016, Kilgore sought and eventually won approval from the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining and the federal Bureau of Land Management to expand onto adjacent public land. Under pressure from area growers, the Utah County Commission then changed the zoning to confine mines to their existing footprints, but that ordinance does not apply to federal land, which predominates West Mountain.

The grassroots group contested the Kilgore expansion before the Board of Oil, Gas and Mining, but that industry-centric panel rejected the challenge on procedural grounds last month, enabling Kilgore to move forward.

“We have become saturated with mining activity, and it is negatively impacting our community,” Sainsbury said at a recent hearing refereed by DOGM Director John Baza. She showed pictures of the quarry releasing dense dust clouds in apparent violation of opacity standards.

(Photo courtesy of Julie Sainsbury) Benjamin residents say fugitive dust emissions at Kilgore Cos.' quarry, like the plume pictured here on May 31, are polluting the air and undermining the quality of life.

“Having a dust-mitigation plan and implementing a plan are two different matters,” she said. “There is inadequate dust suppression going on.”

While conceding they could do more to monitor emissions, Kilgore officials said the quarry is meeting DEQ’s environmental safeguards.

“We follow and are in compliance with the permits we have,” Kilgore’s lawyer Graden Jackson said at the hearing. “We pledge to you we will continue to be in compliance. We are a large operation. We have no desire to be out of compliance. We live in these communities we serve.”

Those assertions mean little to growers and residents who say dust is coating their orchards and neighborhoods and that haulers operate unsafely without consequence.

Gravel quarries could take steps to better control and monitor dust emissions, but operators opt not to, and no agencies are requiring such measures, says Kylara Papenfuss, a field adviser for a fruit-growing cooperative.

“They can treat the loads to keep the dust down. They can put up sensors,” she says. "We have examples where they automatically report dust levels and if they are not within the permit, they can get fined. "

While many in Benjamin are unhappy with the mining, some residents of nearby cities support the Kilgore expansion.

“As Utah County continues to grow, having ready access to building materials is crucial to keeping costs manageable,” Woodland Hills resident Debra Dimmick writes in an email to DOGM. “The pit provides good jobs for residents of the county and has been a good neighbor to the surrounding area.”

A perfect microclimate

West Mountain is not only a rich and convenient source of aggregates for Wasatch Front builders; it is also the geographic feature, rising above Utah Lake’s southeast shore, that creates a microclimate ideal for fruit production, resulting in a bounty of apples, peaches and, most famously, tart Montmorency cherries, marketed as “Monties.” Utah is the nation’s second-largest producer of tart cherries after Michigan, and most of this harvest comes from Payson Fruit Growers, an eight-farm cherry-processing co-op to which Rowley and many of his cousins, uncles and aunts belong.

These growers account for about 40 million pounds of cherries, most of which are dried, put into jams or juiced, then sold around the nation.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Montmorency cherries fall into the "pan" machine while being shaken by a "shaker" machine at Cherry Hill Farms orchard, Thursday, July 26, 2018. Some 230,000 pounds of cherries will be shaken off the tart cherry trees and collected every 8-hour shift during the July to early August cherry harvest.

“We’re in a sloping valley, which protects us from frost. As the winds blow, it moves that cold air out of here. And you can’t just pick any spot down in the valley and plop a cherry tree because they like to be warm. They can’t be froze out,” Rowley says. “These trees do like to go dormant. And so we need that snowpack in the winter. They need a break. So tart cherry trees love hot summers and cold winters, but not too cold.”

His great-grandparents were fruit farmers who came from England and established orchards in Utah. Don Rowley, Ryan’s grandfather, and his brothers grew fruit in Orem until the 1950s, when the arrival of the Geneva Steel plant displaced orchards with subdivisions.

So the Rowley growers established new orchards in Payson, where they discovered ideal fruit-growing conditions under West Mountain. Today, several of these growers' children and grandchildren are still in the fruit business here and hope to remain.

“This is more valuable to me than a stack of town homes and cookie-cutter houses,” says Ryan Rowley, gazing over the orchards fanning out from the mountain. “This is a livelihood. This is food on the table. This is the opportunity for us to give back to the community as well as to hire kids and schoolteachers during the summer to help us harvest.”

The orchards' survival is under pressure by foreign competition, food-safety regulations, drought, and now gravel quarries and dust emissions pushing up costs and reducing yields.

“It’s just a madhouse around here.I just want to see them have some regulation and follow [the rules] that keep everybody safe,” Rowley says. “I understand that we need the dirt and the rocks and the gravel to grow, but as we lose this green space around here, we’re never going to get it back. And the quality of life around here is going to go down.”

Ryan’s 160-acre operation, called Rowley’s Fruit Farms, yields about 1 million pounds a year and supports three families.

“This has been the most blessed way to live ever, to work the land, be out here. I love my office,” he says. “I want to be able to pay that forward to my kids and their future generations. Utah County needs to decide whether or not this industry is important to them. I feel like we’ve been overlooked. We haven’t been heard.”