St. George area gypsum mines bring viable industry, address local concerns

Gypsum mining operations in the Little Valley area, St. George, Utah, Sept. 5, 2013 | Photo by Dave Amodt,

ST. GEORGE – Gypsum mines in the St. George area have been the source of some contention over the past year as new mines and expansions seek to extract this resource, natural and somewhat abundant in the region. Examined here are the details of the operations, associated issues and how they are being addressed, and future prospects for the local mines.

Gypsum mining operations in the Little Valley area, St. George, Utah, Sept. 5, 2013 | Photo by Dave Amodt, St. George News

The first mine, owned by Progressive Contracting, Inc., has been operating in Little Valley since the 1980s and was recently approved to expand its site, while the other, owned by Good Earth Minerals, LLC., was established in the summer of 2012 and is expected to begin operations in the coming months. Both have received their fair share of scrutiny from local officials and community members regarding potential environmental, health and economic impacts.

“Our concern is all the same: that they run a clean operation,” Washington County Commissioner James Eardley said. “We’re interested in enterprise and job creation, but we have to be sure that the public isn’t hurt in any way and the environment isn’t threatened.”

Another mine, about eight miles south of St. George city limits on the Arizona Strip, owned by Western Mining and Minerals, has existed since 1989 with little controversy and virtually no local impact. However, future operations – especially expansion – may be affected by Gierisch mallow, a desert plant listed as a protected species under the Endangered Species Act in August, as the mine is located near designated critical habitat. Gierisch mallow is a subspecies of the mallow plant that adapts quickly and thrives on gypsum; therefore if someone mines gypsum or puts more gypsum on the ground it often will crop up and is most prevalent on old mine dumps, geologist Fred Johnson said. The extent of these potential effects remains to be seen as research and preservation efforts continue.

Gypsum is a common mineral commercially mined in numerous countries around the world and the United States, with significant deposits in the southwest. A soft sulfate composed of calcium sulfate dihydrate, it is widely used to make drywall, plaster, fertilizer, alabaster, soil conditioner, tofu, cement, binding agents, shampoo, mead and many other products.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, domestic production of gypsum in 2012 was estimated to be 9.9 million tons, with a value of about $69.3 million. The U.S. is the world’s fourth largest supplier of gypsum, producing the mineral at 54 mines and plants in 34 states. Gypsum production increased 11 percent in 2012 when compared to the previous year, while consumption increased four percent. More about gypsum can be found here.

GEM mine

In early 2010, GEM began applying for the necessary federal, state and local permits to establish a gypsum mine on 11.5 acres of public land administered by the BLM and located approximately 5 miles west of the SunRiver St. George retirement community (known as the Blakes Lambing Ground area). The company already held three mining claims on the property.

Gypsum selenite | Photo courtesy of USGS
Gypsum selenite | Photo courtesy of USGS

“The resource was here and the gypsum industry is stable,” attorney Travis Christiansen said, on behalf of GEM.

The BLM completed an environmental assessment of the proposed project and released a finding of no significant impact in April 2012. The Washington County Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve a one-year conditional use permit for the mine in July 2012, and the Washington County Commission gave final approval a month later, despite outspoken community protests.

As of today, GEM has not broken ground at the site, but plans to begin mining operations within the coming year are underway.

“We have been working on getting the contractors and customers in place,” Christiansen said. “We are working on getting the final players in place to open the mine.”

“GEM has gone through all the necessary steps to obtain a final permit with us, aside from the reclamation bond, a security bond they post so if they go bankrupt, we can access the funds to ensure the land is reclaimed,” said Jim Springer, spokesman for the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. “A year is a perfectly normal delay; there are several permits they have to receive before finalizing the process with us. We have no concerns with their operation.”

At a county commission meeting on Aug. 20, 2013, GEM’s conditional use permit was renewed for another year without contest or any community input.

PCI mine

The PCI mine sits on approximately 40 acres of land owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration in the Little Valley area of St. George. Originally a sand and gravel extraction operation established in the 1980s, PCI began mining gypsum from the site in 1995.

Gypsum resources at the site are now about 85 percent depleted, prompting PCI to acquire an additional 23.7 acres of adjacent SITLA land earlier this year. The company is currently preparing the new site for use and plans to move operations within the coming months. It will eventually replace the original site, which will be reclaimed for future development.

In cooperation with PCI, the City of St. George Community Development Department compiled an action summary that was passed on and approved, along with the conditional use permit for the expansion, by the St. George City Council on Aug. 15 with no opposition. No public hearings or comment periods were offered.

“I found that the applicant satisfied the questions and concerns I had regarding their plans to minimize and control dust and to confine almost all transportation of the material to River Road and the Southern Parkway,” St. George Councilman Jon Pike said. “Also, the applicant has worked cooperatively with the city in the past and has a good record of compliance.”

Controversy

The decision to approve the GEM mine last summer did not come without opposition from the community. St. George residents, many from SunRiver, filled a planning commission meeting held on July 10, 2012, to fight the proposed mining operation. Arguments against approval included the site’s proximity to residential areas, potential negative impacts on air quality, increased heavy-duty traffic and noise and a general reduction of quality of life in the area. During a 60-day open feedback period in September and October 2012, the BLM received 138 comments from citizens concerned with these issues.

“It will have a negative impact on SunRiver,” SunRiver St. George Homeowners Association president Don Stricklin said. ”I don’t think it’s a necessary thing.”

At a County Commission meeting on Aug. 21, 2012, additional issues were raised by both local government officials and community members, most notably potential health and environmental impacts. Still, the mine was granted all necessary permissions to start operations, following input from the Southwest Utah Public Health Department and experts serving as GEM consultants that satisfied the commission’s concerns. For details, see the complete decision here:  Washington County Commission decision and approval of CUP for GEM Mine.

“We hope to prove that we are good neighbors,” Christiansen said. “We are going to mine as environmentally soundly as we can.”

The PCI mine has received little, if any, opposition from the community. Most Little Valley residents live comfortably despite its nearness, like Kevin Anderson, who said he barely notices the effects of the site’s day-to-day operations.

“There’s lights on over there at night, sometimes, and we hear a few booms now and then,” Anderson said. “There’s some big trucks during rush hour, but it doesn’t really bother me. I don’t care if it’s there or not.”

Issues and concerns

The mines present no threat to endangered plant or animal life in the area, aside from possible displacement of a small population of the Mojave desert tortoise near the GEM site, which was considered a low-risk issue in the BLM’s findings, providing the mine follows a set of specific regulations. Gypsum is not a harmful substance and no toxic materials will be used at the mines; public health is not a concern. Impacts on land are expected to be minimal, and the sites will be reclaimed for future development after the projected 20-year (GEM) and five-year (PCI) lives of the mines.

Air quality and dust control

In this area, dust can travel up to 10 miles when carried by the wind. Gypsum mines stir up a great deal of earth with blasting, excavation, rock crushing and material hauling, leading to dust control being among the main points of concern with mining operations near St. George.

“Exposure to dust can cause respiratory difficulties and lead to poor health,” said Robert Beers, environmental health director for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. “Dust also directly contributes to a reduction in air quality.”

A required stipulation of the conditional use permits granted to GEM and PCI, mining operations abide by all federal, state and local air quality standards, and previous restrictions were increased as a condition of the allowed expansion of the PCI mine. Both have fugitive dust control plans in place and must:

  • Frequently apply water to sufficiently mitigate dust in mining areas, stockpiles and other disturbed areas and on haul roads
  • Transport all material from the site in covered trucks going no faster than 20 mph
  • Not participate in any activities causing dust beyond property boundaries
  • Apply sufficient dust control in anticipation of and during weekends, holidays and other periods of site inactivity
  • Shut down operations and start dust control upon receiving notice of a natural weather event causing winds above 30 mph
  • The PCI mine must also conduct dust self-inspections in cooperation with city officials

Any violation of these restrictions is grounds for revocation of the conditional use permit.

Drywall made with gypsum | Photo courtesy of Earth911
Drywall made with gypsum | Photo courtesy of Earth911

The City of St. George actively monitors air quality in the area. Air quality coordinator Bill Swensen said that no additional impacts, aside from routine dust and pollutants, have been observed as a result of local gypsum mining operations, and none are expected in the future if they participate in effective dust control measures. Additionally, gypsum mines emit minimal levels of other pollution types, mostly exhaust from equipment and vehicles.

“The only possible concern is regional haze, which is mostly aesthetic and not health-related,” Swensen said. “We have no issue with any of these operations and they can continue forward as long as they follow the guidelines of their permits.”

Noise and traffic

During the permitting process for the GEM mine, a main citizen concern was noise from mine operations, mostly blasting, and heavy-duty vehicle traffic. In response, the BLM conducted a noise model using computer equipment that determined that by the time any mining noise reached SunRiver, it would be only slightly louder than human speech during a normal conversation. This was deemed a permissible level.

Due to its proximity to residential areas (though the new mine will be located farther away from Little Valley than the existing site), the PCI mine must abide by additional noise control regulations. Operations will be limited to daylight hours only and noise, including blasting, must not be “prolonged,” “unusual” or “annoying,” according to the action summary.

SunRiver and Bloomington residents also expressed concern over the possibility of material from the GEM site being transported through their neighborhoods.

After the BLM’s environmental assessment, it was determined that GEM will widen the unpaved Blakes Lambing Ground Road to use as its only haul route. This will impact an additional 2 acres of land but create a viable route for transport trucks to go through the Mine Valley area and onto West Old Highway 91, avoiding any developed areas.

Trucks hauling material from the PCI mine can only use River Road to the Southern Parkway. This is expected to reduce risk for pedestrians, cyclists and smaller vehicles.

Jobs and revenue

The SunRiver site is the first and only mine owned by GEM, a relatively new business. According to the environmental assessment, GEM plans to extract a total of 800,000 crude tons of gypsum selenite from the site over two decades, for use in many commercial applications of the product. The company projects an initial production of 20,000 tons per year, with a possible increase up to 100,000 tons annually depending upon market demands.

The mine currently does not employ any local workers, as mining operations have not yet begun. Christiansen said that anticipated employment numbers and revenue are proprietary information and cannot be revealed. Local businesses have contributed to the preparation process, including surveying and exploration, on a contract basis.

Gypsum mining operations in the Little Valley area, St. George, Utah, Sept. 5, 2013 | Photo by Dave Amodt, St. George News

“The GEM mining operation has the potential to become a large employer and thereby a large contributor to the local economy. However, it appears there is not enough market demand for that to happen anytime soon,” said Scott Hirschi, director of the Washington County Economic Development Council. “I believe the mining operation in the (Little Valley area) has produced a large and positive local economic impact.”

The new PCI site is expected to last five years, over which time employment and revenue numbers should remain steady. Currently, the mine employs around 40 workers and generates approximately $6 million in gross annual income. Extracted gypsum is mostly distributed to Georgia-Pacific in Las Vegas, some to Richfield, Utah, and some to California.

“Through the ups and downs of the last few years’ economy, gypsum has remained steady,” PCI Project Manager John Wilson said. “It’s really helped us get through slow times in construction.”

According to statistics from the Colorado Mining Association, mining employees are among the highest-paid industrial workers in the nation and earn an average of twice the salary of most private sector jobs.

“Extraction is one of the truest forms of value-added impact. Extraction operations remove products from the earth and, through refining and processing, the original product becomes much more valuable, which adds to the community’s wealth,” Hirschi said. Conducted properly and conscientiously, extraction operations can greatly contribute to the local economy without adversely impacting our quality of life.”

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.

Gypsum mining operations in the Little Valley area, St. George, Utah, Sept. 5, 2013 | Photo by Dave Amodt,
Gypsum mining operations in the Little Valley area, St. George, Utah, Sept. 5, 2013 | Photo by Dave Amodt,

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5 Comments

  • Brant Ross October 2, 2013 at 8:32 am

    Alexa – Thanks for a well-researched and a well-written article. It is very informative. Great work!

  • Dan Lester October 2, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Superb survey, Alexa. By far the best and most balanced summary of the history and possible future of these operations.

    Keep up the excellent research and writing.

  • Deke October 2, 2013 at 11:44 am

    Quote: “At a county commission meeting on Aug. 20, 2013, GEM’s conditional use permit was renewed for another year without contest or any community input.” … yet the public “filled a planning commission meeting held on July 10, 2012, to fight the proposed mining operation” . The County Commish was so bothered by all that public input, they did not publish a community-wide notice regarding the 8/20/13 meeting’s topic until the afternoon that day … they must’ve known if they’d given proper public notice we would all be there again … their contempt for public input could not be clearer.

  • DB October 2, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    Gypsum is a component in TOFU? Ouch…Good article, though.

  • John D October 2, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    “I believe the mining operation in the (Little Valley area) has produced a large and positive local economic impact.” Good lord Mr Hirschi your lack of knowledge regarding Washington County economics is telling! I’d say since the mine isn’t employing any locals “yet” the economic impact is very small.The anticipated employment numbers and revenue are proprietary information is just easy speak for no local jobs! I’d like to know where to find out all things given or promised made by the city to this company. since jobs aren’t being created someone is making money from it!! But getting any information from this city is worse then pulling teeth.

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