ST. GEORGE – The Washington County Commission voted unanimously to approve a conditional use permit for a contested gypsum mine five miles west of SunRiver.
Proposed by Good Earth Minerals, the gypsum mine rests on 11.3 acres of land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. This is not the first mine of its kind in the area, as a second, preexisting mine lies eight miles south of SunRiver, just across the Arizona state border.
Despite the concerns and protests from residents of SunRiver and others from the surrounding community, the Washington County Planning Commission approved a conditional use permit for the mine on July 11, and sent it on to the County Commission with a recommendation for final approval. Primary concerns from protesters of the mine included impact to air quality, noise pollution, impact to scenery and environment, and traffic.
Though the County Commission was originally going to hear the matter Aug. 7, it was postponed until Aug. 21.
In the hands of the Commission
Eric Clarke, the deputy county attorney, told the commissioners in the Aug. 21 meeting that they did not have to give deference to the recommendations of the planning commission. As well, given the nature of the meeting in which an appeal against the mine would be heard, Clarke said, the commissioners could ask for new evidence and postpone a decision until such a time as they felt competent no further investigation was needed. They could also simply uphold the permit, make changes to the permit requirements, or block the permit outright.
However, Clarke told the commissioners that if the applicant, in this case Good Earth Minerals, had met all of the requirements and were in accordance with county code, the Commission must grant the permit.
Once a permit is granted, opposing parties have 30 days to appeal the decision in district court.
When the Planning commission issued approval for the conditional use permit, several requirements were tacked onto preexisting ones associated with the proposal. Some of the requirements made were in direct response to the concerns raised by SunRiver and area residents in the July 11 meeting. Before approaching the Planning commission, GEM worked with the BLM for two years to gain approval for the location of the proposed mine. During this time, the federal agency conducted an Environmental Assessment that included its own list of requirements to be met before operation could begin.
“(We) believe we have met all the requirements,” said Travis Christiansen, GEM’s legal representative.
Still, the question on air quality remained. “Dust has been a major concern,” Commissioner James Eardley said.
Fred Johnson, a consultant for GEM, said the mine would spray magnesium chloride on the access road that trucks would use in order to keep the dust down. An added benefit to using the magnesium chloride is that it wouldn’t have to be applied as often as water, which would help lessen traffic on the road, he said
As well, the BLM demands that the mine have at least two water trucks on hand to spray the roads so dust control can be maintained. “If we need … more (water trucks), we will use more,” Johnson said.
Occasional blasting may be required onsite, but Christiansen said there would be “very little blasting.”
Johnson said blasting could ruin the very gypsum they were after, so it would be done as little as possible. He said GEM would rather use a bulldozer over blasting to remove the limestone cap of a gypsum deposit. Should blasting be necessary though, he said GEM planned to use explosives that blow outward and not upward, therefore keeping dust kick-up to a minimum.
In order to keep noise levels down, hours of operation for the mine have been restricted to daylight hours, with blasting only allowed between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., per planning commission requirements.
The potential noise from the mine was also a concern of the BLM, Johnson said; it used a computer model to determine noise levels for the area. According to the model, noise from trucks and heavy equipment at the mine would be at whisper levels by the time the sounds reached SunRiver.
“Noise and dust were addressed by the BLM assessment,” Johnson said.
Dr. David Blodgett of the Southwest Utah Health Department was asked to address the Commission on the potential health impact of the mine on the community. Specifically, a question over Valley Fever, a sickness that can occur when spores escape with kicked-up earth, had been raised and the commissioners wanted an answer.
Blodgett said GEM had done a good job in complying with health laws, and added that the standard for public health is high. The mine itself would be held to the same air quality standards as St. George and Washington County in general, which were already “very stringent,” he said.
As to Valley Fever, Blodgett said dust is kicked up every time construction takes place. “We do a lot of earth-moving,” he said. The spores that cause the sickness exist in the first 6 inches of the soil in the areas, and despite cases that do occur from year to year, he said it was “not a continual issue.” Due to the air quality requirements put in place by the BLM and other entities, Blodgett didn’t see a problem with letting the mine move forward.
“(The mine) won’t have a public health impact,” he said.
Additional air quality measures imposed on the mine include a speed cap on haul trucks – they can only go 30 mph – and automatic shut down of mining operations if winds exceed 30 mph for a consistent period of time.
Additional concerns from the July 11 planning commission meeting that were addressed on Aug. 21:
- Traffic route: Though a haul route was not determined at the July 11 meeting, GEM has since settled on using Highway 91 for truck access to and from the mine. Johnson said hauls would consist of seven trucks per day, carrying up to 20 tons of material.
- Signage: GEM will work with the necessary agencies to warn travelers, cyclists, and other who use Highway 91 of heavy-load traffic in the area via roadside signs.
- Air quality monitoring: Still an issue. Christiansen said GEM is willing to utilize air-monitoring equipment, but wanted a baseline established first. Should poor air blow in from beyond the mine’s general location, GEM did not want fingers pointed at them for something beyond their control.
- Water: Johnson told the commissioners that GEM had a “letter of intent” from a private citizen with water rights who would sell them water. Christiansen added negotiations were taking place with other parties. Unless GEM can procure the water needed for the mine, it cannot proceed with the project.
- Reclamation: GEM will take measures to reclaim (restore) the land to its previous condition after mining. Johnson said this would be done on an incremental basis during mining operations.
Seeking due process
Heath Snow, a lawyer representing the SunRiver developer and Homeowner’s Association, said the matter of the mine was “an issue for residents throughout the county.”
As he addressed the County Commission, Snow said certain public documents that should have been available for review previously had not been. In order to gain access to these documents, such as GEM’s application to the state for the gypsum mine, Snow’s clients had to make a GRAMA (Government Records Access and Management Act) request.
Snow said his clients wanted time to review the documents and “analyze their legitimacy.” He asked the Commission postpone permit approval for 180 days so that review, conducted by a third independent party, could take place.
“We ask for reasonable time” to look into the documents, Snow said. Should the Commission refuse the request, Snow told them they would be denying his clients due process.
In response to Snow’s request for postponement, Christiansen said the documents had been available to the public the entire time. “I went to the (state) website and downloaded (the documents).” He added he had been using those same documents in his presentations before the County Commission.
Still, Snow said more time was needed so the documents could be adequately reviewed so the question whether they were “credible and legitimate” could be answered satisfactorily.
The Commission’s decision
The Commission then heard a statement from Don Stricklin, the president of SunRiver’s homeowner’s association. He asked the commissioners to keep GEM accountable to the requirements should they be given the permit, and stressed the need for air quality control. “An air monitor is crucial,” he said.
Other statements were made and suggestions given, among which was making GEM pay for a local air quality control inspector who would inspect the mine at regular intervals, rather than relying on someone at the state or national level to do so.
After the statements concluded, the three commissioners – Eardley, Denny Drake and Alan Gardner – recessed the meeting at 5:30 p.m. so they could hold a closed session to discuss the Commission’s options.
The meeting reconvened at 5:40 p.m., after which the commissioners voted unanimously to approve GEM’s conditional use permit.
The permit is good for a year, at which time GEM will need to apply for a renewal.
“We weren’t afforded due process,” Snow said of the Commission’s decision. As for whether his clients would pursue an appeal in district court, he said, “The decision hasn’t been made yet.”
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