Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Missoula County hopes to notch a number of conditions over the proposed expansion of a gravel pit in the Bitterroot Valley, including a bond for reclamation and a specific date for when the mine would sunset.

Western Materials owns the existing 80-acre gravel pit 5 miles south of Lolo and is seeking a variance from the county to expand the operation by about 60 acres. The property, located off Highway 93, is zoned for residential, though the request seeks to allow an industrial use.

The county on Monday didn't express an opinion over the project, which is set for a public hearing this week. But commissioners and county staff did make clear their hope to see Western Materials agree to a number of conditions before considering approval.

Among them, the county may seek to secure a specific date for when the operation will end, along with the required reclamation, a wildlife corridor, berm heights and gravel storage, among others. It could also seek a bond above and beyond what's already required by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

“DEQ verified that when we put conditions into the permit application, they become part of the permit, like maintaining the seeding on the berm, the height of the berms and certain operating hours. Once it's it in there, its enforceable by the DEQ,” said Mike Smith, a senior environmental engineer.

Last October, Western Materials president John Kappes applied for a variance to expand the gravel operation into the adjacent Leibenguth property, which includes three 20-acre and two 5-acre lots to the west, for a total of 150 acres.

Kappes was the former president of the Mountain Water Co., which owned Missoula’s water until the city sued and gained control of the resource in 2020. Kappes has stated the value of the gravel given growth in construction across western Montana.

But late last year, residents in the area formed the Carlton Protection Trust and hired legal counsel in an effort to block the expansion. With a decision now looming, the county hopes to secure a number of conditions that would be tied to the operating permit.

“The bond itself will cover all the costs to reclaim the site to the reclamation we put into the permit application, like bringing in the fill you need, doing any seeding, doing any grading and making sure the site is safe afterword,” said Smith. “In the last 10 or 12 years, DEQ has recognized that a lot of their bonds are undervalued. They've made a conscious effort to increase those bonds and the cost per-unit-yard of bringing in topsoil.”

But the county voiced other concerns on Monday, including how long the gravel operation will last. County staff speculated the current mine has several decades worth of material left in the ground and, without a hard end date, the mining company could “slow walk” extraction, thus extending the life of the operation.

They also suggested that if the expansion permit is denied, that Western Materials could continue to crush gravel brought in from other locations. As part of the conditions, the county may seek a specified end-date and a guarantee that the mine would close once the gravel is gone. That would eliminate any chance that the operation would continue to crush outside gravel in perpetuity.

“If we don't, it could go on indefinitely. There would be no reclamation,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “They could just store gravel there and not reclaim the site.”

The county also expressed concerns that, in the past, the state hasn't required mining companies to post a bond large enough to ensure reclamation work is done.

“If I was an adjoining property owner, it would take some edge off knowing the lifespan is not a slow-walk gravel pit that can be extended to some indefinite time frame as opposed to 35 years,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “The state of Montana is a textbook case of broken promises when it comes to reclamation or remediation of sites or mines that have been played out, and the rest of us are left to pick up the tab.”