In the last year, gravel has enjoyed a dump truck ride to the top of the heap in the Flathead, moving from a mere windshield-pocking nuisance to one of the valley’s most contentious issues.
Residents of the Sunrise Terrace neighborhood, whose back yards abut the JTL Group’s I-35 gravel pit, are worried that a recent proposal by JTL will prolong both mining activity and Sunrise Terrace’s wait for the pit to be environmentally reclaimed.
The climb began in November 2004 when the JTL Group, a subsidiary of the Bismarck, N.D.-based Knife River Corporation, which does over $1 billion a year in sales, claimed that under state law the county had no right to regulate its gravel operations on I-35, east of Kalispell.
Former County Planning Director Forrest Sanderson agreed with JTL’s interpretation of the law, as did Chief Deputy County Attorney Jonathan Smith. The county Board of Adjustments upheld Sanderson and Smith’s findings, allowing anyone to wrestle gravel from the ground anywhere and in any way they saw fit in Flathead County.
That’s about the time Sunrise Terrace residents, including Jerry Nix, the most outspoken JTL opponent, got angry. They formed a group called the Sunrise Terrace Neighbors and filed an appeal in state district court in Kalispell that temporarily halted unregulated gravel pit operations. They then built a coalition of more than 200 people and organizations, lobbied the state Legislature and changed state law to make it clear that counties can regulate or prohibit gravel operations. The victory seemed final until June 20, when JTL submitted new plans for the I-35 pit to the county planning office, once again claiming the county has no ability to regulate.
To fully understand JTL’s plan, it’s necessary to know that the I-35 pit is divided into three sections, one permitted for gravel operations in 1972, one in 1986, and one mined before the Montana Open Cut Mine Act became law in 1972.
The problem Nix and Sunrise Terrace have with JTL’s application stems from the company’s proposed use of the “pre-law” portion of the land, where JTL proposes building a plant to process gravel into concrete.
JTL’s application holds that the pre-law area has been mined continuously since before Montana’s Open Cut Mine Act, and is therefore grandfathered in for industrial use, thus not subject to county oversight.
But Nix points out that as recently as May 19, 2005, JTL was found guilty by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) of mining without a permit on the pre-law section. This, he says, proves that the site was not grandfathered, and requires a permit.
Rod Samdahl, an environmental specialist for the Kalispell branch of the Montana DEQ, confirmed that JTL mined the pre-law section without a permit, which he said was an honest mistake. But he explained that the issue is more complicated than that. According to him, mining and a concrete plant are separate issues in the DEQ’s eyes. While mining has not been continuous on the site, mining operations have been, making it unnecessary for JTL to obtain a permit for the plant.
The county itself is confused on this issue. County planner Kirsten Holland believes that JTL’s unpermitted mining took place somewhere other than the pre-law section. She said that if Nix can prove the mining took place on the pre-law site, both current mining operations and the concrete plant could be deemed illegal.
This apparent confusion over the pit’s history and the law addressing it could cause difficulties for the county Board of Adjustments, which will hear JTL’s proposal Aug. 2. Should the board decide to green-light the concrete plant, the site won’t have to be rehabilitated until it has no gravel left to process. Running out would take an estimated 40 to 50 years.
Therein lies the problem for Sunrise Terrace and Nix.
“It’s a dust bowl that blows up every time the wind picks up,” Nix says of the gravel pit. “It’s a mess. It looks terrible, it continues to be a scar on the land.”
Reclamation, which could begin in seven years if the batch plant is blocked, would consist of JTL planting vegetation over the pit, settling the dust and improving its look.
Nix says that when he and other Sunrise residents bought their homes, they expected reclamation to arrive as each area was mined out. Sunrise Terrace Neighbors would prefer the batch plant be built on the 1986 site so that reclamation of the pre-law area can begin in the foreseeable future. But Nix thinks money plays a role in JTL’s reluctance to start reclamation.
“If your sole concern is the bottom line, which would you choose?” he asks, “spending $1 million now or in 50 years?”
JTL did not return calls for comment.
Even if reclamation began tomorrow, Nix isn’t sure he wants JTL’s version. The company’s reclamation plan, whenever it may be enacted, calls for a 30-acre, 40-foot-deep “trout pond” in the 1972 and pre-law areas. Such a “pond” would go 40 feet deeper than original permits allow, well below the water table and only 150 feet from the Flathead River.
In Nix’s opinion, a 30-acre lake is not a trout pond, but a loophole that allows JTL to take another 145,200 cubic yards of gravel from the site. Aside from the additional years of mining the company plan calls for, Nix and his neighbors worry about the environmental effects of digging below the water table so close to the river.
“Anything that’s spilled into that lake will go right into the river, and right into Flathead Lake,” Nix says.
The Sunrise Terrace Neighbors propose that DEQ does additional studies before final reclamation plans are approved, and the county Planning Department has recommended DEQ consultation as a condition of approval by the Board of Adjustments.
Although the Planning Department says it will recommend JTL’s plan at the Aug. 2 Board of Adjustments meeting, Nix remains confident in the proposal he intends to present there, writing in a letter to the Sunrise Terrace Neighbors that it “strike[s] a balance between the rights of [JTL] to mine and process their gravel resources, and the rights of the adjacent residential neighborhoods to enjoy a healthy environment and maintain the value of their homes.”