Patrice Arent: Putting new gravel pits next to densely populated areas will worsen our air quality

Dust from Parleys Canyon gravel operations will blow into the Salt Lake Valley.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The northeast flank of Grandeur Peak, pictured on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, would be the site of a massive limestone under a proposal by a Parleys Canyon property owner.

As reported in The Salt Lake Tribune on May 17, a local developer who wants to put a 635-acre gravel pit in Parleys Canyon, on the north slope of Grandeur Peak, is now suing Salt Lake County to stop the enforcement of a recently passed zoning ordinance that prohibits new mining activity in the Wasatch Mountains.

This project will not only negatively impact wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, scenic qualities and water use, but will also create a new source of air pollution in the Salt Lake Valley.

During my 20 years as a senator and representative in the Utah Legislature, one of my top priorities was improving air quality. With the support of colleagues in both parties, we passed dozens of bills to do just that. Improving our air quality is not easy. And it is clearly better to avoid adding new sources of pollution to the air we breathe, like dust from gravel pits, than to undo those decisions once they have been made.

As the population of the Wasatch Front explodes, the sources of air pollution increase along with it. So it is always a race to keep our air quality from worsening. Improved technology and careful planning create the potential to reduce more emissions from cars, trucks, buildings, and industry. It often comes down to two questions: What is clean air worth to us? And who should pay for it?

This proposed gravel pit will eventually be 10 times larger than the one that already exists on the other side of the I-80. Dust from the disturbed acreage, whether actively excavated or not, will become airborne and drift away — an even bigger problem when the wind is blowing.

The canyon creates a funnel, sending dust into the air breathed by school children and other residents of neighborhoods downwind from Parleys Canyon, many of whom I represented in the Legislature. This dust will also build up in the Salt Lake Valley, adding to the pollution that, at times, gives us the dubious distinction of having the worst air quality in the country, and occasionally the entire world.

Dust from gravel pits is difficult to control. The main method is spraying it with water. During our hot, dry summers, when water evaporates quickly, it is nearly impossible for this method to be effective. We don’t really know how much spraying is necessary because, in Utah, gravel pit operators are not required to install air monitors, their internal records are not made public and state inspections are very infrequent.

Furthermore, operators are not required to control the dust when the wind exceeds 25 miles per hour, which occurs in Parleys Canyon about 40% of the time. Also, dust is rarely controlled at night and on weekends, when gravel pits are not in operation. And in our drought-stricken state, spraying dust is not the best use of our precious and diminishing water resources.

Gravel pits excavate limestone deposits to produce sand, gravel, and crushed stone for concrete and as a base for roads, foundations, driveways and sidewalks. Limestone is commonly found across Utah, so we have plenty of options to quarry this material outside the densely populated urban counties. The state’s requirements for dust control are less rigorous in sparsely populated areas where gravel pits can be located much further away from the air people breathe.

So it comes down to our willingness to protect our air quality and pay the cost of transporting these materials from unpopulated areas farther away. The location of these necessary, but polluting, gravel pits should be decided based on the best interests of the entire community, not by a single private property owner who wants to profit from the development of a gravel pit in the wrong place.

Patrice Arent

Patrice Arent, Millcreek, served in the Utah Senate and House for 20 years. She passed almost 90 bills, and was the founder and co-chair of the Legislature’s bipartisan Clean Air Caucus.