Lehi’s assurance that Point of the Mountain dust poses no health risk draws backlash from residents; Health Department says more study is needed

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homes at Traverse Ridge near a mining operation, Friday Nov. 23, 2018. The city of Lehi has sent a letter of assurance to residents saying there are no health risks from the gravel mining and construction on Point of the Mountain. They site a health department study showing the operation is not causing health-damaging air pollution. The health department tells a different story -- and they can't say there are no health risks from the mining.

A letter Lehi sent to residents in October aimed at calming concerns over air-quality issues related to dust from mass grading at Point of the Mountain has some residents crying foul and the state Health Department calling for further investigation.

“It is filled with false information and was nothing more than a political hit by the city against its own residents," said Elias Faraclas, a vocal critic of the Point of the Mountain mining operations.

He accuses the city of "purposefully ignoring the health and safety of its residents in favoring the interests of large mining operations within the city limits.”

Mayor Mark Johnson and City Council members sent the letter assuring residents that dust particles being kicked into the air have not been shown to have a significant health effect and thus are not a reason for concern. However, elected leaders said that an environmental committee will be formed to monitor air quality.

“We are not experts in dust mitigation and environmental concerns,” the letter said. “We have applied much effort in the research of this issue and we believe it is best to rely on the expertise of representatives from our state agencies to determine if there are any associated risks with such activity.”

It then went on to quote Sam LeFevre, program manager of the state’s Bureau of Epidemiology, saying: “While construction work that puts a lot of dirt in the air is annoying, it is not a significant public health concern.”

LeFevre’s statement to the City Council from an Aug. 28 briefing focused specifically on construction dust, which is primarily composed of PM10 and amorphous silica particles that are generally too large to be inhaled and absorbed into the bloodstream. It did not address mining operations, which often generate dust containing a high percentage of crystalline silica, which has been linked to health risks.

LeFevre confirmed in a recent Salt Lake Tribune interview that there haven’t been site-specific studies at Point of the Mountain and said those should be undertaken.

“Since the Lehi City Council meeting, we have become aware of the Traverse Mountain residents' concerns and are in the process of looking more closely at what can be stated specific to Geneva Rock,” LeFevre added. “At this time, we are not in a position to make any specific conclusions about [mining] operations.

“We are unaware of any specific studies completed on Geneva Rock’s [or other mining companies'] emissions,” LeFevre said. “We are aware from the permitting documentation that Geneva Rock is permitted to release up to 128.86 tons of PM10 per year. We also know that the predominate material being processed by Geneva Rock is quartzite. Quartzite is approximately 90 percent crystalline silica.”

This type of particle has been heavily discussed as a health risk around gravel pit mines in a debate which captivated Draper residents, and ended with the City Council there voting to ban future mining expansion.

“The Lehi City Council briefing addressed ‘construction dust’ with a description of the health effects associated with crystalline silica and amorphous silica,” LeFevre clarified. “Our briefing did not address any specific site, including Geneva Rock."

He said the briefing was based on an assessment of literature on the topic, including past investigations of other gravel-pit operations that have not been determined to pose a public health risk.

“We would like to take a tour of the [Lehi] site so that we can better understand the proximity of operations to residential areas,” LeFevre said. “Right now, we are relying on Google Maps (which may be outdated) and it is not clear to us what/where all the facilities are.”

John MacFarlane, a Salt Lake County neurosurgeon and an air-quality activist, told The Tribune that, “The conclusions and assurances given to the people of Lehi by the epidemiologist [and Lehi City Council] were disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst.”

MacFarlane said, “There are [no] monitors of air pollution in Lehi. No soil sampling has been done, and they don’t have a way to keep track of how much dust may be condensed in the homes of those living close to the mines."

Studies of gravel pits and mining exist that say more than half the dust generated contains smaller, hazardous particles, he said.

MacFarlane is a member of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, an activist group of individuals from Utah’s medical community who are concerned about air quality and other environmental issues.

The group has asked that Lehi’s letter "be retracted until the homes and area in Lehi can be monitored, dust collected and analyzed for number and size and elemental composition, soil be sampled and that data be carefully analyzed and a report be generated.”

Cameron Boyle, Lehi City Council spokesman, said, “We got our information from the Department of Health because we don’t have the expertise or ability to assess these situations. Following their recommendations, we determined that development would continue in that area.”

The council is "concerned about the health, safety and welfare of our residents,” Boyle added. “If data comes out revealing a negative impact on the population, the council would likely act accordingly.”

Lehi resident Jesse Mlaker accused the city of acting in bad faith.

“It looks to be a politically motivated letter," he said, “to provide cover for the city against the residents who are, rightfully so, complaining about Lehi not fulfilling its responsibility to protect the health, safety, and well-being of its residents.”