Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) The state of Montana has refused to hold a public hearing about the proposed gravel pit and asphalt plant near Arlee, so the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes held their own.

On Thursday, the CSKT Tribal Council held a public meeting with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality at the Pablo Tribal Complex so tribal leaders could get answers about a number of concerns dealing with the proposed Marvin Rehbein gravel pit northeast of Arlee.

The council had sent a letter to DEQ asking for a full environmental impact statement and other analyses of the proposed pit. The CSKT have some say because the gravel pit would be within the reservation and the CSKT owns land close to the gravel pit.

DEQ Director Chris Dorrington said DEQ would decide if an environmental assessment was required based upon Rehbein’s application. Rehbbein’s application is still pending because he has yet to address two problems. Once the application is acceptable, DEQ could choose to do a more stringent analysis if significant criteria were triggered, but Dorrington said it’s “highly unlikely.”

The council’s letter also requested an open public hearing on Rehbein’s proposal. DEQ Mining Bureau Chief Dan Walsh said the recently passed House Bill 599 wouldn’t allow that.

“Based on the number of requests for a public meeting, we are not intending to hold a public meeting,” Walsh said. “But we are welcoming comments. The comments we receive in written form are quite helpful in getting us information that is of concern to residents.”

Upon hearing that, Council Chair Tom McDonald asked that a microphone be made available to the 30 or so people in the council chambers and another 15 online.

“I’d like to have our friends here in the room have a chance to air their concerns at this public meeting,” McDonald said.

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In late May, some Arlee residents were shocked to learn that Rehbein proposed to build a 12-foot-deep, 160-acre gravel pit and asphalt plant within a half-mile of the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas.

As they scrambled to organize, they learned that DEQ now requires more than half of the homeowners within a half-mile of the proposed pit to request a public hearing within 30 days, under new rules passed by the 2021 Legislature. Before 2021, people living within a mile of a project could comment and only 30% of the neighbors needed to request a hearing.

It appears that not all homeowners were contacted, partly because some tribal members live on CSKT property so only the tribal government was notified. Plus, only the primary owner of a piece of property with a house can comment under the new rules mandated by HB 599. So the neighbors missed DEQ’s 51% requirement for a public meeting by one or two comments.

Tribal member Shelley Fyant said a records request showed DEQ didn’t include some residents’ comments.

“From the very beginning, the process wasn’t followed,” Fyant said. “This tribe asked for an EIS because Arlee is designated as a cultural property according to our tribal historic preservation officer.”

McDonald challenged Dorrington and Walsh on the new rule requiring the project applicant, not the DEQ, to be the one who notifies adjacent landowners and posts signs. Walsh said the applicant must certify that he contacted all residents within a half-mile but admitted that DEQ doesn’t follow up to confirm everyone was contacted.

If a landowner said they weren’t notified, there would just be a difference of opinion as to who was contacted, Walsh said. McDonald suggested that such a difference should invalidate the certification.

“If you’re an adjacent landowner and you raise it that ‘I wasn’t notified,’ it seems like that would take precedence over the person who’s self-certifying,” McDonald said.

After several residents said no signs were posted, Dorrington said he’d start requiring that applicants submit photos of the signs they post around their property as verification.
More than a dozen residents raised other issues, including Jim Coefield who said the recently formed Friends of the Jocko Valley have retained legal counsel to protect their constitutional right of participation if DEQ doesn’t go through with a public process. Others encouraged people to vote in the upcoming election for candidates who would do a better job of protecting residents and the environment.

Richard Janssen, head of the CSKT Natural Resources Department, said HB 599 created part of the problem, so the law should be changed back to the original wording in the upcoming legislative session.

“What we need to do as a tribe is look at House Bill 599, how it was written and why it was written,” Janssen said. “Our department is looking at the impacts of this proposed open-cut mine and the impacts on our resources because we live here. We’re going to live here in perpetuity. Our ancestors were here, our grandchildren will be here, this is our last best place. And we’re going to do everything we can to make sure our resources aren’t impacted.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at