The owner of a gravel pit just outside Glacier National Park has proposed expanding his operation tenfold, prompting enough backlash to keep public comment open on the project through the end of the month. Although, with years already invested in this project and a court settlement backing it, there may be little anyone can do to stop it.
Bob Spoklie has put forward a request to expand his gravel pit from its current size of 2 acres up to 24 acres. The mine is along Belton Stage Road, a rural route that snakes through a canyon less than one-quarter mile from Glacier’s western boundary and about 500 feet from the Wild and Scenic River corridor of the Middle Fork of the Flathead.
Under the amended proposal, an estimated 1.8 million cubic yards of gravel would be removed from the site over the next 25 years. The mine’s maximum depth would increase from 30 to 70 feet.
The pit first created a public stir several years ago, when Flathead County officials reluctantly settled a lawsuit with Spoklie that allowed for the mine’s eventual expansion with some conditions. One of those requirements was a new permit from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
The DEQ posted an amended environmental assessment for a permit on March 20, allowing 10 working days for public comment. Then, last week, the state agency announced it was extending the deadline for a full month to Friday, May 1.
“We’ve gotten lots of comments back, and the majority are opposed to the expansion of the pit,” Rod Samdahl, with the Kalispell DEQ’s energy and industrial minerals division, said, noting that many of the comments are coming from people outside of the Flathead Valley or even the state.
Samdahl said the agency was somewhat surprised at the influx, since most area residents have followed this particular permit for years. “They understand that there’s a settlement agreement that pretty much locked down what could and couldn’t be done with this site and the agency’s regulatory limits,” he said. “We didn’t expect to get people coming in at this point saying, ‘How can you do this?’”
Still, at the request of many of the people commenting, the agency extended its deadline to allow them more time to catch up and formulate their opinions, Samdahl added.
Spoklie bought the property in 2004 and sought to reopen the pit, which had been idle for nearly a decade. He wanted to use the gravel in building the infrastructure for his 400-acre Martin City housing development called Glacier Hills.
But the county denied his request to expand the pit, citing conflicts with the West Glacier Zoning District and the Canyon Area Land Use Regulatory System. West Glacier residents strongly opposed the project as well, namely because of its proximity to the national park and effects on neighboring landowners.
Spoklie responded with a lawsuit in January 2006. At the time, it was the sixth lawsuit filed against Flathead County over its gravel pits in just over a year.
Eventually, Flathead County commissioners settled the lawsuit and approved the pit grudgingly and only because a little-known law tied their hands. “We basically had a gun to our heads,” Commissioner Joe Brenneman said.
A clause in state statutes exempted gravel mines from local zoning restrictions if the mine permit was issued before April 1991. The permit for Spoklie’s mine was issued in March 1991.
The settlement imposed several conditions on the pit, though, including limits on size and working hours. In turn, the latest environmental assessment includes provisions that appear to mirror the terms in the settlement agreement.
The overall size of Spoklie’s pit is limited to 24 acres, with the active gravel-removal area capped at a maximum of 8 acres at any one time. Pit operations are limited to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and crushing is prohibited from June 15 to Aug. 21 and from Nov. 15 to March 12.
In addition to increasing the maximum mining depth and amount of gravel that could be removed, the amended permit would increase a performance bond from $1,500 to $52,050. The operation would involve a daily 22 trips by dump trucks.
Spoklie also plans to add a wash plant to the site, using water from an onsite well and a recycling process to conserve water. The system would lose about 20 gallons per minute. A small amount of offsite-generated asphalt and concrete would be brought and stored onsite and recycled through the crusher.
The environmental assessment is available on the DEQ Web site at www.deq.mt.gov/ea/opencut.asp.
Interested parties can submit written comments until Friday, May 1 at 5 p.m. Comments may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, faxed to (406) 755-897 or mailed to Rod Samdahl, DEQ Industrial and Energy Minerals Bureau at 109 Cooperative Way, Suite 105, Kalispell, MT 59901.