New operator brought in for Parleys Canyon mining plan — but will it face an uphill battle?

Cars drive through Parleys Canyon on I-80 Nov. 29, 2021. A plan calls for a mine operation in the area, now referred to as the I-80 South Quarry.

Cars drive through Parleys Canyon on I-80 Nov. 29, 2021. A plan calls for a mine operation in the area, now referred to as the I-80 South Quarry. (Mike Anderson, KSL-TV)


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SALT LAKE CITY — The owner of a planned mine in Parleys Canyon — a project that drew concern from residents after it was announced in the fall — has hired a national company that would operate the mine as it seeks to move forward with plans to mine in the area.

The move is happening after a state agency denied one of the two mining plans, potentially opening the proposal up to a public forum — and as Salt Lake County pushes a possible rule change that would potentially ban the operation from happening at all.

Tree Farm, LLC, which owns over 600 acres of land north of Grandeur Peak and west of Mount Aire in Parleys Canyon, has amended its request for mining in the area. The company informed the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining Wednesday that Granite Construction has been hired to run mining operations of what's now called the "I-80 South Quarry," according to a document obtained by KSL.com.

The document states there is no longer any attempt to extract precious metals from the mine. Rather, the quarry will aim to fulfill the growing need for construction materials like granite, limestone and trap rock, as Utah — and the Wasatch Front — continue to grow at significant rates, according to a quarry website that went online Thursday.

Granite Construction, a California company with a branch in Utah, also operates about a half-dozen other quarry sites in the state. It has also worked on many other projects in the past, such as the construction of the Jordanelle Reservoir Dam.

The two companies, on the website, assert that not only is Utah the fastest-growing state in the country over the past decade, new long-term projections also show that it's still on pace to add another 2 million people over the next 40 years. Most of the growth is expected in Salt Lake and Utah counties.

"The I-80 South Quarry is necessary to support affordability, quality and sustainability in Utah's growing economy," Granite Construction President and CEO Kyle Larkin said in a statement to KSL.com. "This project will serve Utahns for years to come and Granite is dedicated to operating with industry-leading practices that protect the environment and match what citizens of the 'best-managed state' have come to expect in their businesses."

The companies also contend that the Salt Lake City area alone will require "258 million tons of various aggregates" over the next 20 years and that failing to meet the demand may result in "serious consequences."

In essence, their argument for the mine comes down to ensuring there aren't future supply chain issues in building for the state's projected growth.

"We're not nearly keeping up with the demand," said Matt Lusty, a partner at Honey Communications, which was hired to represent the companies and the mining project.

"You need to have these mines — that's why this is being proposed," he continued. "It's not somebody just saying, 'We need to make some money off these mines.' Yes, there's always a business case, but there's an economic need here."

Tree Farm first submitted a notice of intent to the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining for a small and large mining operation in the canyon in November. It was referred to as "Silver Mine" at the time.

The small mining proposal — a request to begin with 20 acres of land — was ultimately denied by the division in December. John Baza, the division's director, wrote in a letter to Tree Farm that the large proposal needed more proof that local, state and federal agencies were involved in the permitting process.

While the small operation proposal doesn't require a public input process as a large proposal does, Baza added that the small mining operation would just be the start of the larger operation — thus the division would focus its attention on the large proposal instead of the small one.

Tree Farm quickly responded with a request for agency action to appeal the ruling. It initially requested to meet over the issue during the division's January meeting, but during that Wednesday meeting, Chris Hansen, with the Board of Oil, Gas and Mining said the hearing has now been moved to Feb. 23.

This map shows the general area of I-80 South Quarry. The first proposal calls for a 20-acre mine in Parleys Canyon used for extracting materials needed for construction. The state denied the request in December and Tree Farm is appealing the decision.
This map shows the general area of I-80 South Quarry. The first proposal calls for a 20-acre mine in Parleys Canyon used for extracting materials needed for construction. The state denied the request in December and Tree Farm is appealing the decision. (Photo: Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining)

If the board upholds the small operation decision, it would mean Tree Farm would have to go through a more public process before mining operations can begin based on the rules for large operations.

Meanwhile, Salt Lake County is mulling a new ordinance that could thwart the project altogether.

Salt Lake County's Mountainous Planning District Planning Commission is set to hold a public hearing on Feb. 3 regarding a change of the code that would ban mining materials in forestry and recreation zones, such as the site of the proposed I-80 South Quarry. There's also a public hearing about it scheduled for Feb. 16.

But it's unclear if that rule would violate a state bill passed in 2019, which limits the local regulation of critical infrastructure materials protection areas. KSL.com reached out to county officials for comment on the proposed ordinance but did not receive a response by publication time.

Lusty declined to comment on the status of either proposal, citing ongoing — and possibly new — litigation. He did confirm both Tree Farm and Granite Construction are seeking to move forward with both proposals.

"We're going to let the process play out," he said. "We're adhering to every measure of both transparency and legal requirement in requiring documentation that could be asked for."

As Tree Farm and Granite Construction try to move forward with their mining plans, they also are responding to the many concerns brought up by residents, recreation enthusiasts and local officials once they became aware of the proposed mine in November.

Residents in the area told KSL that they were worried that a mine would impact air and water quality, as well as wildlife, traffic (from large trucks moving to and from the site) and even views of the pristine canyon.

The companies say that all operations will aim to meet local, state and federal air quality standards, including receiving an approval order by the Utah Department of Air Quality that ensures "no detrimental impact to the surrounding public health and air quality and ensure that operations would meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards."

They still plan to apply water to surface soils and unpaved vehicle traffic areas to reduce dust in the area. The mine isn't a concern for drinking water since it's not in a protected watershed area and Mountain Dell Reservoir is located over a mile upstream from where all the activity will be.

The website did not address Salt Lake City's concern from the time, which is how the mine would obtain the water for this operation. City utility officials told KSL.com at the time they were caught off guard by the plan when it was submitted to the state because they own most of the water rights in the area.

Lusty said the companies are still hammering out the details of where the water would come from.

As for other issues, the companies add that they are aware the mine is within the "potential range" of habit for two threatened species — the Canada lynx and Western yellow-billed cuckoo — but a biologist brought in to survey the land found no evidence of either species at the mine site. More studies are underway to find any potential impacts on species like mule deer elk or moose, which are frequent visitors to Parleys and Millcreek canyons.

The project also won't have any impact on recreation access since the land was already private, but the companies did add they are open to the idea of opening new recreation access in the area once the mining of material is over and an "extensive reclamation" of the site is conducted in the future.

They add the project will add about 140 trucks per day annually to I-80 but point out that it's only a 0.23% increase to the current five-year average of almost 60,000 vehicles per day through the canyon. Lusty argues that all of those trips would be much shorter than if the materials were brought in from other parts of the region, which cuts back on environmental and infrastructure impact and also helps lower the cost for construction.

The state will still have to approve operations before mining can begin. While the state will hear an appeal on the small mining request in February, there's no timeline yet for the larger mining request to go through the hearing process.

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Carter Williams is a reporter who covers general news, local government, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.

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