‘The most alarming bill I’ve ever seen’: Proposed mining legislation could greenlight a quarry in SLC’s backyard

Proposed legislation could hasten the approval of a controversial mine in the Wasatch foothills.

(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. A proposed bill in the 2024 legislative session could greenlight the project.

Critics say that proposed legislation would turn a controversial mining project in Parleys Canyon into a reality — and silence a cacophony of local opposition.

“This may be the most alarming bill that I’ve ever seen,” Brian Moench, a lifelong resident of Utah and president of the nonprofit Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, told The Salt Lake Tribune.

SB 172: Protection Areas Revisions is sponsored by Sen. David Hinkins, R-Ferron. The lengthy bill would make it easier for landowners to open mines and gravel pits statewide, reduce local oversight of those operations and make them more difficult to challenge in court.

Sen. Hinkins told The Tribune through a Senate spokesperson that he wanted to work on the bill first before talking about it.

Opposition to the bill has many fronts. The Salt Lake County Council unanimously voted to oppose SB 172 last week. Others fear that the bill will greenlight mining in Parleys Canyon and dangerously degrade air quality, threaten wildlife and imperil Parleys Creek, a watershed from which Salt Lake City residents get 20% of their water supply.

Supporters of the proposed legislation and the Parleys Canyon mining projects say that Utah is in dire need of aggregates — materials like gravel, crushed stone and sand used for construction — to sustain its growth. The I-80 South Quarry in the canyon would produce up to 1.1 million tons of aggregate annually.

“We try to recruit people here because it’s the best place to live, work and play. We say all of these things, and we mean them, because we love it here,” said Elizabeth Converse, co-founder of Utah Tech Leads, a political action committee representing the state’s technology industry that opposes SB 172.

“But we cannot employ people who cannot breathe,” she told The Tribune.

A limestone quarry in Salt Lake City’s backyard

In November 2021, an LLC called Tree Farm proposed two mining projects in Parleys Canyon: a 634-acre mine under Grandeur Peak and a smaller mine impacting 20 acres. The proposals came as a shock to neighbors, many of whom first learned about them from The Salt Lake Tribune.

Tree Farm, owned by Salt Lake City developer Jesse Lassley, later withdrew its large-mine application, focusing instead on the smaller mine called the I-80 South Quarry. “Small mine operations,” under Utah law, do not require as thorough a review for approval by the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.

The Salt Lake County Council finalized a zoning ordinance prohibiting new mines in the Wasatch foothills and canyons — an area spanning 136,000 acres — in April 2022.

Tree Farm quickly challenged the ordinance in court. Lassley asserts that Tree Farm has a historic right to mine in Parleys Canyon that should be respected and that the county overstepped its authority.

“This bill feels like a very clear way to legislate a victory in that lawsuit and not have to move through that legal process,” Katie Balakir, policy associate with the nonprofit Save Our Canyons, told The Tribune.

The bill text defines a mining use as valid if “the mining use existed on any portion of the mining property or was conducted or otherwise engaged in before a political subdivision prohibits the mining use.”

“There’s a very real concern that this bill is meant to benefit very specific land owners and companies that are wishing to open up mines in the state of Utah,” Balakir said.

In August 2022, the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining awarded Granite Construction, a California-based construction company, with the permit for the I-80 South Quarry — with several strings attached. Granite Construction couldn’t commence operations until it got approval from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and a conditional use permit from Salt Lake County. The latter indicated that it would not grant it.

The Utah Division of Air Quality in May 2023 signaled its intent to approve the limestone quarry and received public comments until late July 2023. The agency is still going through the public comments and has not rendered a final decision.

SB 172 would get rid of many of the obstacles facing the I-80 South Quarry, Moench said.

“This bill is so transparently crafted for the benefit of those who are working to try and establish this Parleys mine that it almost smells like it was written by Granite Construction,” he said. “We are alarmed that this big, powerful California corporation is preying on Utah for profitability.”

‘A dried-up Great Salt Lake right in their backyard’

Moench said that if SB 172 is passed and the I-80 South Quarry is approved, “the east side of the [Salt Lake] valley is going to have a dried-up Great Salt Lake right in their backyard.”

He referred to dust pollution from the dying lake, which is a major concern for both air quality and public health. Mining in Parleys Canyon would result in massive increases in fugitive dust and diesel exhaust emissions, Moench said, and the latter is known to cause cancer.

Granite Construction argues that rather than increasing air pollution, mining aggregates near Salt Lake City would mitigate it.

“Because long-term importation of aggregates is not a sustainable practice, materials will need to be transported longer distances, increasing air emissions, road wear, and fuel use,” reads a Granite Construction website about the I-80 South Quarry. “This will make Utah housing and infrastructure less affordable. Failing to develop new, local aggregate sources will have serious consequences on the environment and economy.”

Fugitive dust causes snow to melt faster, irritates skin and causes respiratory problems. Construction sites usually confront the problem by smothering the dust with water.

In a 2018 paper, Greg Carling, a Brigham Young University associate professor of geology, estimated that a quarry would need between 200,000 and 1 million gallons per acre each year to suppress dust.

“If this bill gets passed and you have this mine and all of these new mines popping up and we’re in a drought,” said Grace Tyler, interim executive director for Save Our Canyons, “where do we get that water?”

Tyler and Moench said that mining operations in Parleys Canyon could contaminate Parleys Creek, an important water source for Salt Lake City and wildlife.

“We need to acknowledge the impact that these [mines] have on public health, and putting it in one of the most populated areas of the state in a canyon that has down winds is not a smart idea,” said Balakir.

Potential impacts statewide

The Parleys Mine controversy has spawned debate over who should regulate extraction: local governments or state lawmakers. SB 172 limits how local governments can regulate mining.

The bill text reads that both local governments and state agencies cannot “enact a local law, ordinance or regulation that would unreasonably restrict” critical infrastructure materials or mining operations. The only exception is if “there is clear and convincing evidence...[of] an imminent danger to the public health, safety and welfare.”

“That’s not only ambiguous, it’s alarming in how it drastically weakens the public from being protected from this sort of activity,” Moench said.

On top of reducing local and state entities’ powers to regulate mining activities, the bill would also make it more difficult to challenge mining rights.

The proposed legislation would make it so any party that unsuccessfully challenges a mining claim would foot the bill for the mine operator’s legal fees.

“The issue here isn’t that anyone’s opposed to getting more aggregate or building more infrastructure to keep housing affordable and to plan for our state’s growth,” Balakir said. “But that aggregate shouldn’t come at the expense of a local government’s ability to make decisions for the health and safety of their people and their constituents, or the land that brings people here.”

Finally, the bill would allow landowners with mining rights to expand their operations to land they don’t yet own, as long as the new property is adjacent to property they already own.

“No one has any answers as to how much land this impacts or how many people it’s helping by establishing this,” Balakir said. “How many additional vested mining rights are we creating? I worry about such a broad change in our statute if we have no idea what we’re opening the door to.”

The bill, which does not yet have a sponsor in the Utah House of Representatives, was assigned to the Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee — of which Sen. Hinkins is chair — on Feb. 5. It was sent back to the Senate Rules Committee on Feb. 6.