Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) As part of a lawsuit filed by a new nonprofit organization, a new gravel pit north of Clearwater Junction has been put on hold pending a hearing.

On Monday, Missoula County District Judge John Larson granted a temporary restraining order against the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and LHC, Inc., a Kalispell excavation company. The order stopped operations of the Elbow Lake Aggregation Project, a recently approved 21-acre gravel pit and asphalt plant.

At a hearing later this week, DEQ and LHC will be required to prove that the gravel pit and asphalt plant don’t negatively affect members of a newly formed organization, Protect the Clearwater, which asked Larson for the order a week ago. If DEQ and LHC fail, Larson will grant a permanent hold on the gravel pit while the lawsuit works its way through the courts.

“There's been complaints about dust pretty consistently since they started. It’s been stopped, so we view that as positive,” said Gayla Nicholson of Protect the Clearwater. “We’re grateful that there will be an opportunity for public information on this in a setting where citizens can understand what’s going on. Our contention is that DEQ didn’t take a good, hard look at this before the environmental assessment was issued.”

On Jan. 6, LHC applied to the DEQ for open-cut mining permits to remove 110,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel from 21 acres on the edge of the Clearwater State Forest managed by the Department of Natural Resources Conservation. The Salmon Lake Highway Reconstruction Project, scheduled between now and October 2024, would use the asphalt.

On April 27, DEQ approved a dryland open-cut permit for the Elbow Lake project. State regulations allow dryland permits to go through a shorter evaluation process with no formal public comment period.

LHC already has nine open-cut permits in the state, including one for a gravel pit 25 miles away on private land near Brown’s Lake approved in July 2021. The state environmental assessment noted that a new gravel pit closer to the construction in Seeley would be more environmentally friendly than trucking asphalt from the Brown’s Lake pit.

Because the gravel pit is on state land, the DNRC was also involved. The DNRC has to issue a “take and remove” mining permit to LHC and collect mining royalties for the State School Trust. The DNRC did set a 30-day public scoping period which closed on April 16.

(Photo courtesy of Protect the Clearwater)
(Photo courtesy of Protect the Clearwater)
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Several people in the Clearwater Valley said they were unaware of the scoping period until it was too late to comment. They said the only clue they had was a piece of paper tacked to a pole near the project site. DNRC spokesperson Cassie Wandersee said a press release and legal notice was sent to media outlets in the Seeley Lake and Missoula areas in mid-March, and a scoping notice was published to the DNRC website and mailed to homeowners within a half-mile of the site. Even so, the environmental assessment included more than 80 comments that were sent to the DNRC, all of which were opposed to the project. The Missoula County Board of Commissioners backed the Seeley Lake Community Council in opposing the permit.

The DNRC approved its permit in mid-May. Both the DNRC and the DEQ permits allow the gravel pit and asphalt plant to operate until 2040.

Shortly after the permits were granted, Protect the Clearwater formed, initiated by Elbow Lake cabin owners. Nicholson leases one of the DNRC cabins at Elbow Lake and provided an affidavit for the lawsuit along with Libby Langston and David Donohue.

“We want them to see if this really is a dryland permit, and even if it is, does it belong in that spot,” Nicholson said. “No hydrological study was conducted. So how can LHC certify that this qualifies for a dryland permit, which precludes any public meetings?”

During a May 15 meeting of the Seeley Lake Community Council, several people said the location of the pit presents problems. It’s directly across the highway from the Seeley Lake Cemetery and the Blackfoot Clearwater Game Range. In the other direction, it’s about a third of a mile from the edge of Elbow Lake.

“It’s (permitted for) a long time, and it’s a huge impact on the Game Range. You think about all the decades that went into preserving the Game Range. It’s closed six months out of the year to protect elk. And yet here we are: Let’s just tear up the place 40 feet away,” said Community Council member Sally Johnson in May. “It drains directly into Elbow Lake, which goes into the Clearwater and into the Blackfoot.”

Protect the Clearwater has also filed a complaint with the Montana Environmental Review Board, which oversees DEQ. The Review Board’s next meeting will be on Aug. 11 at 9 a.m.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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