The rise and fall and rise of a controversial gravel-mine protection bill hated by Utah’s clean-air activists

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Geneva Rock's operations at Point of the Mountain, straddling Utah and Salt Lake Counties, Sept. 22, 2015.

A controversial gravel-mining protection bill that easily passed the House about halfway through the 2019 Legislature disappeared for weeks only to arise from the pit on the last day of the session and pass the Senate with amendments.

That evening, it returned to the House for approval and went down to a narrow defeat. But just about an hour before the 45-day session ended, Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, stood to say that she’d made a mistake in voting to kill HB288.

“I misunderstood the changes the Senate made,” she said, going on to say that the amendments made it “a more narrowly tailored bill than it was before.”

She asked for a redo, and her fellow House members agreed, passing it by an overwhelming margin of 53-21.

Lawmakers in that final hurried debate repeated many of the arguments used earlier to advance the bill that restricts local regulation of existing mining operations — most of them focused on the protection of private property rights.

“This needs to pass because it goes to the very heart of what we hold dear in this country,” exhorted Rep. Calvin Musselman, R-West Haven.

He told how the dairy farm of his father-in-law had over the years become surrounded by new residents who “wanted a piece of the country. They wanted to feel that country. But then they didn’t want to deal with the country when the reality struck them that the farmer wanted to cut his hay at 3 in the morning and they called and complained to law enforcement.”

Others chimed in.

Rep. Kay Christofferson declared the bill was about “a basic right that we ought to protect. … Those who own property ought to be able to use that property and not be infringed upon by those who encroach in the area.”

Christofferson is a Republican from Lehi, where the community is split over the city permitting a gravel-mining operation to expand at the Point of the Mountain near homes and businesses in an area increasingly tied to high-tech companies. He is a retired vice president of Geneva Rock, which has gravel mines at Point of Mountain. He received a $1,000 donation last November from the company’s parent Clyde Companies Inc.

Opponents don’t like the dust that comes from gravel mines.

Representatives from other areas where gravel pits have come under fire from neighbors — in Tooele County and Draper — voted against HB288.

Rep. Suzanne Harrison, a newly elected Draper Democrat, said the bill as amended did not address concerns but instead “undermines local control and makes for less clarity for local government and local communities, subjecting local communities to lawsuits.”

The most creative argument for the bill came from its sponsor, Rep. Logan Wilde, R-Croydon, who seemed to try to frame it as an environmental protection act.

“There are things in our culture and our society that we protect. We protect our environment. If we’re going to protect our environment in the best way, we’re going to need infrastructure, and the proper infrastructure that’s out there,” Wilde said.

John Macfarlane, who is spearheading clear-air efforts of the nonprofit Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, didn’t know what to make of Wilde’s latest argument.

“I don’t understand. That’s ludicrous,” he said. “It does nothing to protect the environment.”

A neurosurgeon, Macfarlane believes the dust from gravel mines can cause not only respiratory disease, but also may be damaging developing brains.

He pointed to some of the arguments used by HB288 proponents who have said closing urban gravel mines in favor of rural ones would add to the pollution problem because of the endless loads that would have to be transported in diesel trucks.

“That’s wrong,” Macfarlane said. “The production of it is where you get the majority of pollution.”

The historic and now vanished Lake Bonneville, Macfarlane said, “had 54,000 miles of shoreline and there’s gravel all around those shorelines and there are far better, safer places to get gravel than right around residential areas where the gravel pits seem to be — a lot of them.”

The left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah sent out a scathing letter of criticism of the bill even before final passage.

“It is flabbergasting that the Legislature would so blatantly choose business interests over the health of Utah families by granting extra protection to gravel pits,” said the nonprofit’s Lauren Simpson. “Clean air is vital to the health of Utahns, and this bill could limit the future ability of impacted communities to regulate debris and dust pollution in their neighborhoods.”

Draper Mayor Troy Walker, who questioned the need for the bill in the first place, said it ended up being something he can live with.

“I helped negotiate the concept of preserving our land-use authority, which is in the bill,” he said. “My biggest concern was that they would be able to strip away the ability to zone property.”

Geneva Rock has been seeking, so far unsuccessfully, to rezone property it owns to expand its gravel operation on the Draper side of Point of the Mountain. That decision remains with the city under HB288, he said, although it prohibits a municipality from changing zoning within a permitted mining zone and eliminates any local authority to control what goes on in an existing operation.

That doesn’t bother Walker, because the city doesn’t attempt to regulate Point of the Mountain mines and isn’t equipped to do so.

“We certainly don’t have the ability to go be the clean-air police. We’re lucky we can afford our firemen and our police officers,” the mayor said. “I think the state is better suited to regulate them and I hope the state will really make sure their air quality is in check. That is a big deal to me.”

Walker noted the claims of air-quality activists and residents. “You hear these claims about [what] gets in the air and what it’s causing. Frankly it’s scary, if it’s causing the stuff they say, silicosis and all this stuff — I don’t want that. But I don’t know. I want the state to figure it out. I hope to heck they do.”

As for HB288, “in a perfect world we wouldn’t have the bill,” he said. But, he added, when the Legislature considers a bill, “the reality of life is you have to go and negotiate something you can live with. You can fight everything, but if you fight and lose then you lose.”