Parleys Canyon mine tests the limits of authority of Utah’s mining division

The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, or DOGM, weighs whether to open a robust public process for approving controversial mine at Salt Lake City’s doorstep, or just issue a permit.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The area in Parleys Canyon where Granite Construction is proposing to excavate a limestone quarry, Wednesday, July 27, 2022. The mine would open a massive pit under Grandeur Peak, drawing massive push back from Salt Lake County officials and nearby property owners.

A limestone quarry proposed in Utah’s Parleys Canyon would supposedly impose a footprint of no more than 20 acres at the base of Grandeur Peak, but its impact would be felt far beyond its open pit and adjacent Wasatch Mountain foothills.

Under state law, “small mining operations” that disturb less than 20 acres are subject to minimal review by the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, or DOGM. But state law also requires the agency ensure that “mining operations be conducted to minimize or prevent hazards to public health and safety.”

With that clause in mind, the division is moving slowly on approval of the quarry — for now.

The ongoing quarry controversy — which has spilled into the courts, the Legislature and Salt Lake County Council chambers — speaks to the conflicting directives state law gives DOGM, and to the influence extractive industries wield in Utah politics.

At a July 13 hearing, DOGM director John Baza fielded arguments from both sides in the quarry controversy. His forthcoming order will spell out how his agency will conduct its review of the project.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Quarry proponents — landowner Tree Farm LLC and its partner Granite Construction — contend DOGM’s role is limited to little more than processing paperwork at this stage. Meanwhile, municipal authorities have raised myriad concerns about how mining operations could wreak havoc in a protected watershed, unleash dust plumes into Utah’s most populated area and scar a landscape valued for recreation and wildlife habitat.

In objections filed with DOGM, the county, Salt Lake City and Millcreek insist the agency take a hard look at the quarry. These entities and thousands of residents want the project killed.

“The division is not a rubber stamp,” said Artemis Vamianakis, an attorney representing Millcreek. “It can exercise that authority to ensure that those protections are in place.”

Whatever Baza decides, the so-called I-80 South Quarry will still have to undergo extensive permitting processes with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, particularly regarding potential dust emissions.

But cabin owners in neighboring Mt. Aire Canyon find little comfort in that. Speaking at Wednesday’s meeting of the Oil, Gas and Mining Board, three owners said the mine would put all 100 homes in the canyon and their residents at risk from dust, earth-shaking and wildfires.

“I’m a supporter of private property rights, but not when one man, one newcomer, who claims that he also has property rights performs actions on his own property that substantially impinge on property rights of myself and my neighbors and thousands of others. What’s not clear to me is who’s responsible to determine whether mining activity will threaten the safety of the nearby community,” Justin Wilde told the board. “It’s this agency that’s responsible for mining operations in this state. I ask you, I beg you to please take seriously your right and ability to consider these matters. There are thousands of homeowners who are looking to you and thank you for it.”

At least 300 Salt Lake County residents submitted letters to DOGM, voicing opposition to the quarry.

Under consideration for DOGM is Granite Construction’s June 16 notice to mine under Utah’s rules for small mining operations. Property owner Jesse Lassley had previously filed the notice as a large mine that would eventually consume 400 acres of hillside over 100 years of operation.

Critics want the proposal reviewed as a large mine, since that is what the proponents intend to operate someday, but DOGM has declined, arguing it is normal for quarry proponents to begin small and seek permission to expand if the economics justify a larger operation.

But nor has it issued the permit within the narrow time frame envisioned in statute.

“Now 15 days has come and gone and the division has not notified the operator that anything is incomplete with respect to the notice of intention,” said Granite’s lawyer Kass Wallin. “The only thing for the division to review and approve or disapprove, according to the rule, is the form and amount of reclamation surety.”

Granite has proposed a $352,000 bond, which DOGM has accepted. Accordingly, Wallin argued, the time is past for DOGM to move aside.

“The division has followed that policy for decades,” he said, “and the division would be violating equal protection rights of operators if it decides on a case-by-case basis — this small mine requires such and such information, and that small mine operation requires additional or different or more burdensome information.”

Republican lawmakers have sided with Granite.

During last month’s interim session, the government operations committee called Baza and the oil and gas board to task for giving extra scrutiny to the Parleys quarry in apparent disregard of state law.

In recent legislative sessions, lawmakers have approved bills shielding the aggregate industry in ways that are now helping the Parleys project. Passed in 2019, HB288 limits the ability of counties to regulate existing quarry operations that excavate “critical infrastructure materials.” And passed the next year, SB131 raises the threshold to qualify as a small mining operation from 10 to 20 acres.

Critics say legislation like this ignores the substantial stakes for nearby municipalities when it comes to aggregate mining. Salt Lake City, for example, holds numerous water rights and maintains reservoirs in Parleys Canyon to supply 360,000 residents with drinking water.

The city’s lawyer Michael Lee told Baza the proposed quarry would threaten the city’s massive investment in the canyon.

“Our watershed in Parley’s Canyon has been greatly impacted by not only overuse and development, but also climate change,” Lee said. “When you add the proposed mine, those significant concerns are greatly exacerbated and will only become more of an issue as time goes on. The proposed mine will make it much more difficult for Salt Lake City to fulfill its obligations under state and federal law to provide clean and safe water.”

Normally a facilitator of extractive industry, Baza is clearly sympathetic to community leaders’ concerns and has previously indicated that Parleys may not be an appropriate place for a new quarry, given its proximity to Utah’s population core along the Wasatch Front, which already has several major sand and gravel operations abutting neighborhoods.

“It’s affecting a lot of people’s lives, so it deserves this extra attention that we’re giving it,” said Baza at the end of the July 13 hearing.

Baza’s order was due by Tuesday, but DOGM announced this week it is extending the deadline, given the complexity of the matter and the public interest.

“It’s impactful to many people,” Baza said. “The philosophy I’ve always had in my role as the administrative head of the division is first and foremost is we need to be consistent in how we apply the rules and the statute.”

And that could mean some mine proposals get a closer look if they carry greater risks to the public and the environment.