A public hearing attended by hundreds at Flathead Valley Community College on open-cut gravel mining served as a preview for how the controversial issue will play out in the 2009 Legislature. Predictably, views between gravel pit operators diverged wildly from those of most homeowners who live near gravel pits, but everyone agreed state lawmakers must hash out some type of compromise when the session begins in January – as tensions over gravel pits in Missoula and Gallatin counties, as well as Flathead, grow untenable.
Last week’s forum was moderated by Democratic elected officials, Rep. Mike Jopek, Flathead County Commissioner Joe Brenneman and state Sen. Dave Wanzenried of Missoula, chair of the Montana Environmental Quality Council and vice-chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
“We need gravel and nobody wants to live next to a gravel pit,” Brenneman said, summing up what may be the Flathead’s most contentious issue, and why it’s getting worse. “The more people that come, the more gravel we need and the more people who don’t want to live next to a gravel pit.”
The crowd, of more than 200, was filled with construction workers, many wearing bright orange work vests and hard hats, who described the necessity of gravel pits to the construction industry, and the jobs it provides. Homeowners, meanwhile, described the degradation of safety, health, property values and water quality they suffered living near gravel pits. Many homeowners called for a moratorium on issuing pit permits until the Legislature establishes clear regulations.
While many comments reinforced familiar arguments on either side of the debate, some new ideas were suggested by speakers. Local attorney Tammi Fisher called for improving the consistency of gravel pit definitions in the Montana Environmental Policy Act and the Open Cut Mining Act, the two documents which provide the guidelines for pit permitting in the state.
Some gravel pit operators who worked previously in California and Phoenix, Ariz., suggested developing a greater number of smaller gravel pits that serve one subdivision at a time, and can be easily reclaimed after the construction work is finished, rather than massive pits that remain open for 40 years. Someone else suggested installing air quality monitors on properties surrounding pits to determine how bad dust generated by the gravel development really is.
Nearly everyone expressed frustration with the Department of Environmental Quality. The DEQ is under fire since a recent Legislative Audit found the state agency charged with issuing permits for gravel pits lacks a formal permitting process and is plagued by a series of other problems precipitated by a staffing shortage amid increasing pit applications. Attempts to beef up DEQ staffing in the two most recent legislative sessions failed.
At the FVCC meeting, construction workers faulted DEQ with taking as long as a year and a half to issue some permits, jeopardizing time-limited state contracts. Homeowners, on the other hand, faulted DEQ with failing to conduct adequate research into environmental impacts of pits before issuing permits.
“In terms of legislation, we need a process for permitting gravel pits that is efficient, timely and predictable,” Cary Hegreberg, executive director of the Montana Contractors Association, said, adding that any new guidelines “need to protect private property rights.”
Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell, criticized the moderators for failing to invite Republican lawmakers to the hearing, calling it a campaign ploy. Brenneman said he invited his fellow commissioners but they couldn’t attend. Jopek said he did reach out to Republicans and he plans to hold more public hearings on gravel pits over the next several months.
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