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SALT LAKE CITY — If Thursday's Salt Lake County Mountainous Planning District meeting over three proposed mining ordinances offered any insight into a plan for a new mine in Parleys Canyon, it's that many residents and local government leaders are vehemently against it.
And the commission voted unanimously to do what it can to stop it from ever happening.
It recommends that the county make ordinance changes that would strike mineral extraction and processing in any county forestry and recreation zones, as well as amend other clerical procedures related to mining throughout Salt Lake County.
Vicki Reid, a member of the commission, read the recommendation after members listened to over an hour of county residents offerIng support for the ordinance changes. The commission deemed that mineral extraction, or mining, was "incompatible" with the Wasatch General Plan for a host of reasons, including that they believe mining would result in:
- Increased air and dust pollution
- Increased noise pollution
- Increased wildfire risks
- Increased risks of avalanches and rockslides
- Increased traffic
- Threats to protected watersheds
- Depletion of water supply
- Loss of wildlife habitat
- Destruction of the landscape and ecology
The decision was made on the basis that it protects the county's general plan, ensures that the quality and quantity of watersheds in the Wasatch Canyons are protected and that the conservation of natural lands is maintained to protect ecosystems and recreational activities.
This doesn't mean those ordinances are now changed. The meeting was the first of two to collect public feedback and provide a recommendation for the Salt Lake County Council. The Salt Lake County Planning Commission will hold a similar meeting Feb. 16.
The Salt Lake County Council will make the final decision on the proposed ordinance change at a later date.
The ordinance change was drafted on Dec. 10, after Tree Farm LLC, which owns over 600 acres of land in Parleys Canyon submitted a proposal to the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining in November to start mining in the area. There were two proposals submitted: one for small mining operations and another for a large mine.
The Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining denied the small mining request in December. Tree Farm appealed that decision and a hearing is set to be held later this month. The larger mining operation is still under review but will have to go through a public process before a decision is made, unlike the small mining request.
Melissa Anderson, a planning manager for the Greater Salt Lake Municipal Services District, explained to the commission Thursday that while the mining proposal is through the state, the applicant would still have to apply for a conditional use permit with the county. That has not happened yet.
Tree Farm announced last week that it has hired Granite Construction to operate the proposed mine, which is now known as the I-80 South Quarry. Granite Construction also launched a website about the proposed mine last week.
While the website includes a question-and-answer section that appears to downplay concerns about the mine, people who attended Thursday's commission meeting either hadn't seen the website or weren't satisfied with the company's answers.
The commission closed a written public comment period an hour ahead of the meeting, after receiving about 200 comments — almost all of which were supportive of the ordinance, according to commission member James Palmer. Nearly 20 residents, including some local community leaders and environmentalist organization members, also provided testimony in support of the ordinance changes.
The comments were so clearly lopsided that the commission asked if any of the dozens logged onto the online meeting were there against the bill. If there were any issues with the proposed ordinance from those who spoke, it's that residents didn't believe it went far enough. A handful of people said they preferred that the county outlaw mining altogether.
The comments mostly centered around the same items Reid listed in the formal recommendation.
Joseph Rejmann, who lives less than a half-mile from the proposed mine, said he's already had to evacuate from his home three times in the past two decades over wildfire concerns, including last year.
He pointed to the massive fire that destroyed about 1,000 homes in Boulder, Colorado, in December, and suggested what could happen to him and other residents if a similar fire resulted from a spark ignited by mining operations.
"Fortunately, everyone got out," Rejmann said of the Colorado fire. "We don't have that assurance. There's only one way in and one way out. ... We feel like this is a threat we don't deserve."
Many of the commenters spoke of air quality concerns, both from dust particles in the mine and from increased construction vehicle traffic. While the I-80 South Quarry website suggests crews would water down areas where dust would blow, there's still no clear answer as to where that water would come from.
Watershed quality was another key concern, although Salt Lake City utility officials have previously said the proposed Parleys Canyon mine won't be a concern for the valley's drinking water. But that may not always be the case for other possible mining locations.
That's why people like Carl Fisher, the executive director for the nonprofit Save Our Canyons, took a step back from focusing solely on the Parleys Canyon mine proposal in supporting the ordinance. He said it's important that the county focuses on preserving forestry and recreation zones altogether.
"We've noted some significant shortcomings in our land use ordinances to protect our water, our wildlife, our air, our forests and other shared community values of the Wasatch Range," he said. "The ordinance put forth by the county take a step in the right direction, but we have a lot more work to do."
The commission voted to recommend the ordinance change with no disagreements from the commission members. The Salt Lake County Planning Commission is expected to meet over the proposed ordinance with an online meeting slated for 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 16 before the matter heads to the county council.
What also wasn't completely answered Thursday is what legal action may happen if the county council ultimately adopts the ordinance changes, and Tree Farm or Granite Construction files a lawsuit over the decision.
There's a 2019 state law that limits the local regulation of critical infrastructure materials protection areas. Commission members on Thursday also asked if they could uphold the ordinance if it were proposed and approved only after someone legally applied to mine in an area open to mining.
Zachary Shaw, with the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office, said that it's possible there will be future legal claims but the office has been "heavily involved" in the process to initiate the ordinance change. He believes there's "a strong legal basis for this ordinance."
As such, he instructed the commission during the meeting that its role was to consider if the ordinance is "good planning policy" and not consider future legal ramifications because "those are beyond the scope of this planning commission's review."