Brian Moench: Mining bill would be a nightmare for Utah’s future

Gravel pit plans would turn the eastern gateway to our Capitol City into Mordor.

The environmental disaster unfolding in Ohio from a Norfolk Southern train wreck should provide another important lesson for every other state, including Utah. Instead, our Legislature is begging for a much worse environmental disaster of our own.

The Ohio debacle was predictable and preventable, and the root cause is unmitigated greed by a handful of rich people. Top brass of the rail industry, enjoying multi-pronged deregulation from the Trump administration, enforced a brutal cost cutting strategy, euphemistically called Precision Scheduled Railroading, that lengthened trains and cut workforce, including safety and maintenance workers. To no one’s surprise, rates of train accidents have increased.

“This has been part of a drive by these multibillion dollar companies to wring every penny of profit out of the rail system,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Breathtaking (literally) greed is also the root cause of a Utah looming environmental train wreck, one that is predictable, but still preventable, at least for now.

Jesse Lassley and California’s Granite Construction are trying every trick in the book to cram down our throats the monster of all gravel pits in the middle of Parley’s Canyon. They are undeterred by near unanimous opposition of Salt Lake County residents, city and county governments and 14 community councils throughout the valley.

Their bidding is being done by Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, sponsoring HB527, winner of the fierce competition for “worst bill ever seen on Utah’s Capitol Hill.”

Lassley’s lawyers claim that silver mining once occurred on his Parleys property (that must have been during the Pliocene) and this bill would gift him the legal right to bulldoze the canyon. While HB527 was unabashedly designed specifically to benefit Lassley and Granite, it would wreak havoc throughout the state.

There are 35,000 open mining claims in Utah, covering 800,000 acres. By granting “vested mining rights” to these claims, land that has any history of mining activity or is connected to mineral-bearing property could be turned into any version of a mine or gravel pit, steamrolling existing land uses, local ordinances, planning commissions and master plans and smothering the quality of life in any neighborhood.

The end result would also be severe property devaluation for anyone near an activated claim, and a rolling out of the red carpet for greedy property owners and out of state profiteering corporations to rush in and create a hellscape of destruction and dust anywhere they can make money. Given the mining claims of 170 years ago, that could be anywhere in the foothills and canyons of the Wasatch Mountains. If someone has a mining claim under Temple Square, HB527 says go for it.

Lassley also owns land near the mouth of Parley’s Canyon. So once he carves up his 634-acre mine, private property throughout the canyon would be devalued, so he could buy up more property on the cheap and continue expanding the mine ad infinitum, turning the eastern gateway to our Capitol City into Mordor. Given his level of civic mindedness you can bet that’s exactly what he’d do.

If everything goes perfectly, a huge mine/gravel pit in Parley’s Canyon would be a constant source of dust and diesel exhaust for all the residents of the canyon, spilling into east bench neighborhoods, kind of like giving them their own dried up Great Salt Lake bed, only uglier. It would destroy every other value of the canyon — recreation, tourism, tree cover, watershed, water quality, wildlife habitat and, of course, aesthetics.

If everything doesn’t go perfectly, add in things like wildfires (there have already been several in Parleys) chemical spills, truck accidents and the foundations of Mt. Aire homes split by nearby dynamiting. And this scenario could be duplicated throughout the state wherever those 35,000 mining claims are lurking.

Some legislators will vote for HB572 as a manifestation of a grotesque value system that they value cheap gravel above everything else. But others will because they simply don’t care that it’s shameless hijacking of state government by a few conspirators to “wring every penny of profit” out of owning the Utah Legislature.

Eventually the Norfolk Southern train wreck will be cleaned up. With Lassley’s Parley’s mine, not in 10,000 years. If this nightmare is not your vision of Utah’s future, I suggest you contact every legislator you can immediately.

Dr. Brian Moench | president, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment

Brian Moench, M.D., Salt Lake City, is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.