Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Montanans are concerned that another proposed gravel pit could degrade a treasured area, this time near Clearwater Junction.

On Monday, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation posted its environmental assessment of the Elbow Lake Aggregation Project, where it chose to permit a 21-acre gravel pit and asphalt plant 3 miles north of Clearwater Junction, in spite of public comment expressing 100% opposition. Locals are now trying to learn if they have any options, although recent legislation has removed much of the ability Montanans used to have to oppose state-approved industrial projects.

Last week, Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier told the Seeley Lake Community Council that the county had backed the council and sent letters to the state Environmental Quality and Natural Resources and Conservation departments voicing concerns about the Elbow Lake gravel pit that will now sit on a wedge of land between U.S. Highway 83 and the Clearwater River.

“Missoula County is just like the rest of you in that we’re not in the role of determining whether or not this happens - we’re in the role of commenting,” Strohmaier said. “We did submit letters to DEQ and the DNRC. A couple of the things we highlighted were concerns related to wildlife and wildlife habitat and water quality.”

On Jan. 6, LHC, Inc., of Kalispell applied for state 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. The gravel is to be used for the Salmon Lake Highway Reconstruction Project being conducted between now until October 2024.

LHC has nine permits for gravel pits, including one that was approved in July 2021 for a gravel pit 25 miles away on private land near Brown’s Lake.

DEQ already did its cursory environmental review and approved a dryland opencut permit for the Elbow Lake project on April 27. The DEQ permit would allow the gravel pit to operate until 2040. One community council member said DEQ “was really hiding the ball” by approving its permit before anyone knew to comment on it.

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

Strohmaier said Missoula County received a letter from the state on May 1 saying the comment period was closed. He said he thought there might be one more opportunity for the public to comment after the DNRC does its environmental assessment. But that wasn't so.

Several people attending the meeting 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 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. “It drains directly into Elbow Lake, which goes into the Clearwater and into the Blackfoot.”

Community council member Sharon Teague said she didn’t find out about the gravel pit proposal until late-March. When she called the DNRC and asked why she was learning about it two months late, the DNRC employee said it had been posted on the DNRC website.

“It seems like there’s been a real lack of transparency,” Teague said. “I was wondering if there’s going to be more transparency going forward. Do we have any idea how many people actually commented? It seems like we’re kind of in a vacuum.”

The environmental assessment included more than 80 comments that were sent to the DNRC, all of which were opposed to the project.

DNRC project contact Zachary Winfield is out of the office for the week, but the Current sent an email Monday requesting an update on the project. DNCR communications director Cassie Wandersee emailed back on Tuesday, saying the EA was done and the permit would be issued.

The DNRC followed the same process it used with the DNRC’s Goldielogs logging project up Gold Creek: the only public comment the DNRC takes is during scoping, and then the department will issue an environmental assessment at the same time as a final decision to approve the "action alternative."

The people in Seeley Lake could relate to residents in Arlee who were hit with similar bad news last spring that a gravel pit and asphalt plant was proposed for 160 acres near the Garden of A Thousand Buddhas. The Arlee residents also protested the lack of notification, but recent legislative changes have made the permit applicant responsible for notification, not the DEQ. And the DEQ doesn’t confirm that neighbors have been notified.

Johnson said when she drove to the proposed site of the Elbow Lake pit, all she saw was an 8.5 by 11-inch piece of white paper on a pole.

“You definitely can’t see it driving by,” Johnson said. “And that’s about the only notice from LHC about what they want to do. It seems so obvious that they wanted as little attention as possible so they could get the permits and just go to it. It does seem so dirty to not let the public know.”

The 2021 Legislature passed House Bill 599, which cut several protections for the public out of Montana’s opencut mining law, following the Gianforte administration’s “Help Cut Red Tape” initiative to strip down state regulations and speed up permit approval for a wide variety of industrial projects. The result is gravel pit permits are being churned out in several areas across the state where neighbors are saying they received little notice and their concerns aren’t being taken into account - Libby, Arlee, Elbow Lake, Helena, Shepherd and the Madison Valley, to name a few.

A similar situation occurred in the Madison Valley where the residents of Ennis and McAllister have been fighting a 23-acre expansion of A.M. Welles’ gravel pit and the addition of an asphalt plant on DNRC land near a Madison River tributary and Ennis Lake. The public there has voiced many of the same concerns as people in Seeley Lake, including water quality and the lack of public notice.

The DEQ and DNRC approved permits in early 2022 before doing an environmental assessment. A group called Protect the Madison Valley formed to oppose the expansion. The DNRC released a Checklist Environmental Assessment for the expansion in September but didn’t post it for public comment. Later, the DNRC agreed to take public comment in November, and then held a public meeting at the end of January because of high public interest. It appears no final decision has been made yet.

In Park County, residents are fighting another gravel pit on state land proposed in June by the DNRC itself near Emigrant. During a June 1 public meeting, DNRC representatives gave no specifics on the gravel pit but said they’d received numerous requests for development of a gravel source in the Paradise Valley to fill the demand for construction material in the area and Yellowstone National Park. The DNRC took public comment until June 30. There have been no further developments.

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