Regulator approves Parleys Canyon quarry, but with conditions that could forestall any mining

Project must still obtain permits from Utah, Salt Lake County and federal authorities

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The area in Parley's Canyon where Granite Construction is proposing to excavate a limestone quarry, Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Regulators approved the mine but under conditions that the mine owners may not be able to meet.

Proponents of a controversial limestone quarry in Parleys Canyon got their mining permit on Monday, but with conditions attached that could forestall development for months, if not forever.

The proposed I-80 South Quarry still requires approvals from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and possibly a conditional-use permit from Salt Lake County.

The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (DOGM) issued the permit for the I-80 South Quarry to Granite Construction more than a month after a hearing held by division director John Baza, who fielded entreaties from nearby cities, property owners and Salt Lake County to reject the permit.

The order is just the latest and certainly not the last development in what is shaping up to be a long and contentious fight over a strip mine in an area valued for recreation, wildlife and its water.

Because Granite had filed for a permit for a “small mining operation,” Utah law gave Baza little discretion in issuing the permit without any environmental review or public process. Operations exceeding 20 acres of disturbance are treated to a more rigorous process.

For operations less than 20 acres, the proponents only need to fill out some paperwork and post an “adequate” bond. Granite completed those steps in June after taking over the project from the initial proponent, developer Jesse Lassley, who owns a 634-acre parcel under Grandeur Peak where the quarry would go on the south side of Interstate 80 a few miles up the canyon from Salt Lake City.

The order illustrates how inadequately Utah law protects landscapes, water, people and communities, according to Save Our Canyons executive director Carl Fisher. He complained Baza ignored and misinterpreted the arguments raised by the quarry opponents at the July 13 hearing.

“We need to figure out what our next step in this fight is,” he wrote in a text. “Having another dusty mine, compounded by a dusty [Great Salt] Lake bed, next to the most populated region, the commercial center of Utah, is inappropriate, dangerous, but the epitome of the Utah way — a lack of care for the people and places that make (made) Utah great.”

Save Our Canyons posted an online petition asking Granite and Lassley to abandon the quarry and work with the community to reach a deal to acquire the property at a fair market price.

In weighing his decision, Baza had to navigate competing pressures. On one side, the Legislature’s pro-extraction members had admonished him to expedite the quarry permit as mandated under state law. From the other side, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and many other elected leaders insisted an open pit operation in Parleys would threaten water sources, send dust plumes into neighborhoods and mar a treasured landscape.

Baza concluded DOGM was not the appropriate regulatory agency for addressing these concerns. But given the quarry’s proximity to Utah’s largest population center, Baza took the unusual step of loading his order with various requirements aimed at protecting public safety.

According to Baza’s order, Granite is to obtain all required approvals from local, state and federal “authorities of applicable jurisdiction” before commencing any operations. It is to comply with all other relevant statutes, regulations and ordinances, including those applying to zoning, safety, air and water pollution, sanitation and waste management, and public liability and property damage.

These provisions could pose a real hurdle for the quarry since the Salt Lake County Council recently amended the zoning ordinance to ban any new mines in the Wasatch foothills and canyons. Lassley’s lawyers have argued the county’s action is illegal in light of a bill the Legislature passed in 2019 barring municipal authorities from restricting the mining of sand, gravel and other “critical infrastructure materials.”

This dispute will likely have to be resolved in court.

Monday’s order also requires Granite to install fencing and signage and monitor the mine perimeter to prevent unauthorized entry; install signage warning of industrial traffic; and minimize industrial traffic during “high recreational and residential commuting periods.”

Blasting and heavy excavation can occur only during daylight hours, and Granite must take precautions to minimize and monitor seismic disturbances. The operator must also comply with all fire restrictions during periods of high fire danger and consult with fire managers to establish a fire prevention and mitigation plan.

Wildfire is a chief concern for residents of the nearby Mt. Aire Canyon community, who experienced a near-miss last year after a vehicle on the freeway ignited a threatening fire. The Parleys Fire was contained thanks chiefly to the rapid deployment of numerous aircraft that encircled the blaze with retardant before reaching homes.

Mt. Aire residents are worried excavation could ignite a fire that spreads into their canyon, which has only one egress.