Under pressure from lawmakers, Utah mine regulators consider permit for Parleys Canyon quarry

Local officials file objections, blasting loopholes allowing Granite Construction to evade public participation in controversial project

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) An aggregate producer proposes operating a limestone quarry on a 634-acre parcel at this spot in Parleys Canyon, on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, sparking pushback from Salt Lake County and municipal officials who view the project as a threat to public health and the watershed.

A controversial quarry proposed in Parleys Canyon is fueling tensions between lawmakers and Salt Lake County officials over how to regulate aggregate extraction, an industry that is taking a conspicuous toll on the views and airsheds along the Wasatch Front.

The Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (DOGM) is under pressure from lawmakers to promptly issue a permit for the proposed I-80 South Quarry, potentially enabling Granite Construction Co. to begin mining in the coming weeks, despite significant objections from Salt Lake County and municipal officials who view the project as a threat to public health and a watershed that supplies 360,000 people.

“The water held in the Mountain Dell and Little Dell reservoirs would be open to dust deposits that will affect water quality since they are located within close proximity to the proposed mine site,” wrote Salt Lake City Public Utilities Director Laura Briefer in a declaration filed Tuesday with DOGM. “Furthermore, fugitive dust deposited throughout the Wasatch Mountains during winter will accelerate the melting of snow.”

By darkening the snowpack, dust deposits make it melt sooner, so less water is available when water needs are at their highest in the summer.

In the past few years, Utah developer Jesse Lassley acquired several hundred undeveloped acres and a partial stake in an existing quarry in Parleys Canyon under the business name Tree Farm LLC. Last year, Tree Farm quietly filed a notice with DOGM to commence a large mining operation, featuring a pit that would grow up to 400 acres over time.

In the face of intense opposition spearheaded by Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, that notice was withdrawn. But last month, Granite, a global aggregate producer acting as Tree Farm’s partner, filed a new notice for a largely undefined quarry of 20 acres, which qualifies for a much less rigorous review as a “small mine operation” under Utah law.

That means DOGM’s sole job at this stage is determining whether the application is complete and the posted surety is sufficient to cover reclamation costs, according to Republican lawmakers who are pressing DOGM Director John Baza to stay in his regulatory lane and act expeditiously in approving the mine.

On June 16, the day after Granite filed its small-mine notice, Baza and Chris Hansen, who chairs the Board of Oil, Gas and Mining, were called before the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Review and General Oversight Committee and endured a lecture on the limits of the agency’s authority.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, was displeased that DOGM had signaled it would hinge its permit for the quarry to permits issued by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

The regulators agreed that they should not interfere with a sister agency’s work, but they noted the mine’s proximity to Utah’s largest urban area and the intense opposition indicate this project warrants extra scrutiny to ensure the public interest is protected.

But current state law might not allow for that. Bramble argued DOGM was setting up a “Catch-22″ for quarry proponents.

“How in the world, if you don’t know the scope of the mine, could DEQ or any other agency approve an application that doesn’t have the scope defined, but that approval is required before that scope could be defined or approved?” Bramble posed. “How could that ever be complied with?”

Under legislators’ view of mine-permit rules, DOGM’s permit should be issued by Thursday, or 15 days after the small-mine notice was deemed complete. But on Thursday, the Department of Natural Resources, DOGM’s parent agency, said state law allows 30 days, so no permit was forthcoming.

Last week, Granite’s notice drew objections from Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Millcreek, Save Our Canyons and a neighboring property owner, all asking for a hearing for DOGM to consider their concerns before proceeding.

The objections argue Granite and Tree Farm are aiming to evade public participation in DOGM’s decision and to commence mining on July 16, prior to obtaining required regulatory permits.

Millcreek’s concerns have mostly to do with dust that would likely blow into neighborhoods at the mouth of the canyon.

“Those residents have been adversely impacted by fugitive dust emissions emanating from the existing rock quarry mining operations just across I-80 from the site described in Granite’s Small Mine [notice],” the Millcreek objection states. “That operation has been cited for excessive dust and other violations of air quality regulations by the Utah Division of Air Quality. The dust from the existing quarry contributes to poor air quality in the Salt Lake Valley by introducing particulates in addition to creating nuisance dust on cars, windows, porches, patios, and driveways in Canyon Rim and beyond.”

The various objections also insist Granite’s proposal should be reviewed under the more-stringent rules for large mines before any excavation commences. Officials argued Tree Farm’s true intent is to develop a massive pit, but it is seeking to circumvent these rules by exploiting a regulatory loophole reserved for mines under 20 acres.

Salt Lake County officials made it clear they would take legal action to block the mine should it win state approval, since it would be located in a protected foothills zone where new mines are no longer allowed under a recently passed zoning ordinance.

In a declaration filed Tuesday, Deputy County Mayor Catherine Kanter said Granite and Tree Farm must comply with the county’s land use and other relevant ordinances, and they have yet to file any applications regarding the mine.

In a recently filed lawsuit against the county, Tree Farm alleged the county has no jurisdiction over the project thanks to a recently enacted law that limits the role of local governments in regulating aggregate operations. Kanter insisted counties still hold jurisdiction over new mines.

“Even if the use Tree Farm and Granite proposes was allowed by County law, there would still be several land use approvals and environmental conditions [they] would have to satisfy,” she wrote. “These include, but are not limited to, complying with requirements for a Revegetation and Land Reclamation Plan, site plan, slope protection, grading plan, site access, geotechnical analysis, stream protection, wildlife protections, and traffic studies.”

Kanter noted that Granite’s notice fails to provide a reclamation plan or an operating plan for the mine.

Meanwhile, DEQ has already issued a stormwater discharge permit for the project, but an air quality permit has yet to be issued, according to agency spokesman Matt McPherson.

An approval order from the Division of Air Quality will be required if emissions exceed a certain threshold and if operations exceed 180 days a year. Such an order requires a 30-day public comment period.

According to McPherson, Granite applied for an approval order permitting “temporary” operations, but the division rejected it because the proposed operations are not temporary.