State wants to launch a full-blown study of health risks of dust blowing from Point of Mountain

(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 cite a health department study showing the operation is not causing health-damaging air pollution. The health department tells a different story — and can't say there are no health risks from the mining.

The Utah Health Department has strongly urged Lehi not to base any policy decisions on the state’s hastily completed and far-from-conclusive recent study of possible health risks from blowing dust from construction and mining at the Point of the Mountain.

A letter from Sam LeFevre, manager of the state’s environmental epidemiology program, said his agency intends, pending approval from the Utah County Health Department, to conduct a more complete site-based study estimated to take about a year.

“In light of the uncertainty present in our quick and limited initial assessment, we strongly recommend that any decisions for the [Point of the Mountain] relying on a health-based assessment be delayed until the more comprehensive assessment is completed,” LeFevre recommended in a Dec. 7 letter to Lehi Mayor Mark Johnson.

Elias Faraclas, a vocal critic of gravel mining at Point of the Mountain, hailed the proposed state study to determine health risks and chastised the city’s earlier assurance to residents that dust blowing off Point of the Mountain posed no risks.

“It seems that the Utah Department of Health agrees that Lehi City should not have been making claims of safety where no evidence exists to support it,” said Faraclas.

LeFevre was the state health official the mayor and City Council quoted in a letter Lehi sent to residents in October aimed at calming concerns over air-quality issues related to Point of the Mountain dust.

The October letter said city leaders “are not experts in dust mitigation and environmental concerns,” but instead “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 LeFevre, saying: “While construction work that puts a lot of dirt in the air is annoying, it is not a significant public health concern.”

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

“Our briefing [to the Lehi City Council] did not address any specific site, including Geneva Rock,” LeFevre told the newspaper. 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.

In LeFevre’s Dec. 7 letter to the Lehi mayor, he said a site-specific assessment that could be relied upon for policy decisions would be far different than the quick review completed earlier.

“Assessing the potential health risks to residential areas next door to those kinds of operations is considerably more complicated than our initial assessment was able to account for,” the letter said. “Pending approval from the Utah County Health Department, the Environmental Health Hazards Assessment Program will begin a comprehensive assessment of the community health risks associated with all mining and construction operations at the POM.”

The proposed study “will assess the available data specific to the site, including data supporting all components of air pollution, multiple exposure routes, and all of the known potential adverse health outcomes. Typically, these community health assessments take about a year to complete.”

LeFevre, in an interview Tuesday, said approval of the local health department is not a requirement, but based on protocol. “We don’t know if the community will ask for it. We encourage them to do that. They may just move ahead with the way things are.”

Asked if the mayor’s previous letter misrepresented his position, he said, “No.”

He later elaborated: “We can’t control and we’re not going to really say anything about how people interpret our comments.”

Epidemiologists often use language that differs from normal casual speech — shunning words such as “safe” or “caused by,” LeFevre said, adding, “We understand communication is a tricky experience for everybody.”

Lehi spokesman Cameron Boyle said there was no intent on the part of the mayor and council to mislead anyone.

“The letter at the time was appropriate” and “based on the information we had at that time,” Boyle said. “That was the direction that we were given, that there was no significant health risk.

“Sam [LeFevre] did say that in his communications with us, and as they continue to adjust that information, we’ll continue to evaluate it.”

Boyle also said the city had been in touch with the Utah Health Department in response to the new letter and “we’re waiting on some clarification from [LeFevre] and from their attorneys.”

He added that “there’s a possibility that this letter might be changing so we don’t have a comment on it at this point.”

It’s unclear whether the community will invite the state to do the comprehensive health-risk study it has offered, Boyle said. “We want to make sure we’re doing what’s best for residents as well as preserving the rights of the property holders in our community.”

Faraclas said he has attempted to contact the city about the new state recommendation without success.

“If the city was truly concerned about the health of its residents,” he said, “it would call a moratorium on the existing mining operation within the residential area of Traverse Mountain as well as prohibit any new mines until a complete environmental impact study was completed.”

Reporter Cara MacDonald contributed to this story.