At a time when the nation and state are celebrating epic investments in infrastructure, including water and sewer projects, roads, bridges, and alternative energy projects, it was interesting to read Anne Hedges’ guest opinion of April 1. 

Ms. Hedges’ letter is quite dramatic regarding House Bill 599, which allows expedited permitting for rural sites for a material that is critical to accomplish all the above listed infrastructure needs. It is also critically important for the construction of new housing. Setting aside the importance of sand and gravel to society’s needs, Ms. Hedges claims to know so much about opencut permitting and HB 599, but in fact this showed that she does not.

HB 599 merely places the specific area of concern raised by a particular operation before the scientists and individuals which are best suited to protect the environment – air and water quality.

As it specifically relates to the proposed Fire Pit nine miles south of Libby, HB 599 did not change the process for Thompson to obtain an opencut permit.  HB 599 also did not diminish the State of Montana’s ability from making the operator mitigate impacts to the environment by complying with its myriad of environment laws and regulations.  HB 599 did not affect how the Air Quality Bureau regulates its program, it did not change the laws pertaining to how the Water Quality Bureau regulates water quality or storm water runoff, and it did not change how DNRC handles water rights. 

Ms. Hedges mentions protecting property rights … yet MEIC discounts the property rights of the property or mineral owner where the operation is to be located.  Does MEIC believe residents and neighbors have more say over what goes on at the opencut property than the owner?  They shouldn’t.  The property rights of the individual where the opencut operation exists or is proposed must be equally protected.

Many opencut permits are located on property owned by private citizens and not businesses.  When approached, many landowners get extremely upset about neighbors and DEQ telling them what they can and can’t do with their own property.

In her review of the permits currently issued, she fails to mention that there are 818 county opencut sites, and 639 of those have expired or no recorded reclamation date. These operations were never bonded, therefore, there can be no reclamation enforcement by the State.  For example, Valley County has 58 sites and is only mining gravel in five. She also failed to mention that at least 85 percent of opencut sites in Montana are rural.

The Opencut Act was always intended to be a reclamation act, which in many situations puts that land back in a way that significantly benefits the neighboring property.  As a reclamation act, the Department of Environmental Quality never had the ability to say “No” to mines in what some believe may be the wrong location, therefore the ability to say “No” is not something that can be restored, as Ms. Hedges claims.

No one cares about the environment, water quality, air quality, dust, and being a good neighbor more than the Montana Contractors Association and its members.  Gravel is the main component of everything that is built – roads, schools, churches, and bridges. Operators pledge to continue working closely with government agencies at all levels to ensure the history of failures of mining in Montana never happen again.

David Smith is Executive Director of the Montana Contractors Association. The MCA is the leading voice for the highway and commercial construction industry, and a chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America.