House Committee Advances Gravel Bill

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Legislators Friday advanced a bill stemming from Montana’s gravel-pit commotion that has had construction contractors complaining of delays in getting rock, homeowners grumbling that pits spoil residential areas and judges requiring the state issue gravel permits despite lack of environmental reviews.

The House Natural Resources Committee voted 12-6 for a bill that would change state laws on open-cut mining, most of which is gravel mining. House Bill 678 authorizes collection of fees from applicants for open-cut permits, with the money going to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality so it could hire additional staff to handle permit applications. DEQ has had a backlog of unprocessed applications. Officials say the agency lacks the staff to keep up.

The gravel controversy spans years, the Legislature has wrestled with a number of gravel bills since convening in early January and HB678 offers the best prospects for resolving some issues, said Rep. JP Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman, who introduced the measure.

A state audit last year found an array of problems in the DEQ program that regulates gravel pits. Those problems include poor file documentation, lack of a formalized permitting process and failure to collect a key tax, auditors said. Their report came soon after District Court rulings required DEQ issue some permits to mine gravel even though the plans did not undergo the environmental review state law requires.

DEQ said lack of personnel and a Montana construction boom that boosted demand for gravel left the agency overwhelmed. The department’s unit that oversees open-cut mining has for years had a staff of four, despite the growing workload. Projected revenue from the new fee would fund several additional positions.

The bill includes new timeframes for DEQ’s processing of mining applications, public-notice requirements and conditions under which public meetings about applications must be held.

The committee amended the bill Friday night after a hearing in which the measure was opposed by the Montana Contractors Association. The group advocated the fees for additional staffing but criticized some other aspects of the legislation. During the hearing, support for the bill came from the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Gallatin Gateway Open Cut Mining Action Group, which includes owners of homes near gravel sites covered by court-ordered permits.

Consideration by the full House is the bill’s next step.