New limestone quarry under Grandeur Peak will scar Parleys Canyon unless we all wake up, Editorial Board writes

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The area in Parleys Canyon, Nov. 22, 2021 where a proposed open-pit limestone quarry would be located, according to Utah mining regulators in November.

The first level of government approval required for a proposed open-pit limestone quarry in the highly traveled Parleys Canyon between Salt Lake City and Park City appears to be little more than a rubber stamp, to be issued soon by the notoriously weak Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (DOGM).

That’s why Utahns should insist that the further levels of permitting required — from Salt Lake County, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and any other elective or appointed officials who might have a chance to weigh in — be highly rigorous, totally transparent and full of opportunities for public comment.

None of that will occur in the DOGM process, because state law doesn’t require it. By applying to start with what the law defines as a “small mine” — under 10 acres — rather than permission to mine the whole of the 634-acre parcel it owns along I-80, Tree Farm LLC could have DOGM approval for the first phase of their operation in hand by the end of the month.

Fortunately, that’s not the only paperwork the owners need.

The operation will still need a special use zoning permit from the county as well as air- and water-reviews from DEQ.

As that process moves along, Tree Farm should have a lot of explaining to do.

The proposed quarry sits near Grandeur Peak, a popular hiking destination from nearby Mill Creek Canyon. It has the potential, if not properly managed and monitored, to have significantly negative effects on the recreational opportunities of the area, as well as an existing housing development in nearby Mt. Aire Canyon. It could also pose a threat to the already fragile state of the valley’s air and water.

Leaders of the Salt Lake City Public Utilities Department have rightly expressed concern about both the potential for surface and ground water pollution as well as whether the quarry’s demand for water to suppress the dust rising from the site will eat — or drink — into the city’s water rights.

And Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson has rightly raised concerns about what impact the planned mine would have on popular nearby homes, hiking trails and traffic on I-80.

It’s not like there aren’t other highly visible quarries, mines, refineries and the like throughout the urbanized region of Salt Lake, Davis and Utah counties. But a proposal to create a major mining operation along a major gateway to the state’s capital city is something that should be greeted with official skepticism.

“This is not in harmony with Salt Lake County’s vision to protect the unique qualities of our canyons and public health for generations to come,” Wilson told The Tribune. “Instead, the development could potentially scar the natural contours of the landscape and could irreversibly disturb the experiences of countless residents in these two canyons.”

Once fully ramped up, the operation could produce 2 million or more tons of limestone a year. Moving all that to market could generate more than 100 truck trips a day, each carrying 40 tons, mostly onto an already stressed I-80.

Part of the concern comes from the fact that oil, gas and mining regulators in Utah have not exactly covered themselves with distinction when it comes to enforcing state rules, fining violators and making sure operators have posted sufficient bonds to clean up messes and reclaim sites without leaving the taxpayers holding the bag. A 2019 review by the Legislative Auditor General’s office outlined the shortcomings, which have not been fully addressed.

The potential for the quarry to make a major environmental and aesthetic mess near a highly traveled gateway to a heavily populated area is very large indeed. All government agencies with jurisdiction should do their jobs thoroughly. And Utahns should keep a sharp eye to make sure that happens.