Gravel and the Practical Application of House Bill 678
Gravel pits: Problem presented; problem (almost) solved
Great Falls Tribune, Tuesday, January 26, 2010
It is reassuring to witness a government initiative that actually seems to be working.
Today's case in point stems from a dispute over the proposed reopening of a gravel pit and operation of an asphalt-mixing plant southwest of Great Falls, northeast of the Hardy Creek exit. Both would be temporary, serving an upcoming reconstruction project on the nearby Interstate 15.
Under a new law passed by the 2009 Legislature, gravel pits such as the one proposed south of Cascade now come under closer environmental scrutiny, and the approval process for them is much more transparent.
As a result in this case, landowners in the vicinity of the existing but not-recently-used 29-acre open-cut gravel source, as well as the county commissioners, have been notified by mail of the Montana Department of Transportation's plans. Signs notifying passers-by of the plans also have been posted near the property, and a hearing on a special use permit is set this Friday in Great Falls.
The gravel and asphalt are needed by contractor Schellinger Construction for a $16.7 million I-15 reconstruction project scheduled to begin when weather permits this spring and last into November.
We have no stake in the specifics of this case, but we would observe that roads have to be maintained, that materials for that maintenance have to come from somewhere, and that obtaining materials close to the site of the work makes economic sense. Should this gravel and asphalt operation be set up where proposed? That's for others to decide.
But we join Chris Cronin, supervisor of the Department of Environmental Quality's open-cut mining program, in applauding the operation of the new law.
Having been notified of the contractor's plans, a couple who live in the vicinity have challenged the permit, objecting to the location of the gravel mine.
"One of the intentions of the law was to make sure the public had knowledge of this early on, and that is definitely occurring," Cronin said.
Had this project come up a year ago, chances are few people would have known about it until the trucks started rolling.
Just as important, the law imposes a small tax on the product of such gravel operations, and money from that is helping Cronin's agency clear a backlog that was clogging up the works.
A legislative audit in 2008 found that only four people were responsible for overseeing about 2,000 gravel operations, and that there was a permitting backlog of about 300.
Thanks to revenue from the new tax, additional scientists have been added and the backlog is shrinking.
There's still some distance to go, but the Cascade-area gravel pit dispute shows that the solutions crafted by the Legislature can work for an informed citizenry and more efficient regulatory processes — no matter how the Hardy Creek couple's protest turns out.