ARLEE — One of the more contemplative places in western Montana – the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas – may soon be far less peaceful if the state approves a gravel pit northeast of Arlee. Neighbors have been saddened to learn that, due to recent legislation, approval is almost a given.
Jennifer Knoetgen is still hopeful that Missoula-based Riverside Contracting Inc. won’t open the Marvin Rehbein gravel pit within a half-mile of her home. She first learned of the possibility at the beginning of May when she received a letter from the Department of Environmental Quality giving her and 23 of her neighbors 30 days to comment on the proposal. She was stunned.
“This summer – actually June 15 – is our 20th anniversary on our property. So, it’s been two decades of our life and our lifestyle and all this energy that we’ve put into this farm,” Knoetgen said. “Then to hear about this, we think, ‘Oh gosh, what should we do?’”
The first thing she did was start knocking on her neighbors’ doors to encourage them to comment on the proposal. The new requirements created by the 2021 Legislature requires that at least 51% of heads of household must indicate that they want a hearing to trigger a formal hearing. That means at least 13 neighbors had to comment but Knoetgen heard rumors it might have been only 11.
“The only thing I’ve received is a June 6 email saying they’re working on it,” Knoetgen said. “We’d been told that anyone could comment on it. Of course, I asked everyone I know to write in about this, so maybe there was a lot of response.”
Hannah Talbott lives about a mile away from the proposed pit and asphalt plant so the half-mile requirement means she’s voiceless.
“It’s really not that many people that get a voice even though it impacts a lot of people outside that half-mile radius,” Talbott said. “We have a pretty shallow water table and it adjust seasonally. And one thing that’s not mentioned on the permit is that Palou Creek runs directly through that whole area – it’s an underground creek. That’s concerning for neighbors who are downstream from that. And if our groundwater is affected, how much recourse do we have?”
The proposed gravel pit is about a half-mile east of the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas at the end of White Coyote Road, a narrow county road. Riverside Contracting applied for the permit on April 7. The plan is to dig to 12 feet below the existing sprinkler pivot across 160 acres. One corner of the section will house a rock crusher and mobile asphalt plant. The permit would require the company to return the section to cropland by 2047.
The application says the pit won’t affect the groundwater but Talbott knows the groundwater level fluctuates and she’s “downstream.”
Prior to the 2021 Legislature, DEQ could reject a gravel pit in areas with intermittent or perennial streams, higher groundwater levels or where surrounding hillsides were steep to avoid affecting water quality. Wildfire mitigation procedures were required along with protocols to limit damage to other property and life forms. DEQ could require a bond for various reasons and could limit hours of operation, noise levels and traffic levels.
But with the passage of House Bill 599, sponsored by Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, all of that changed or disappeared, along with citizens’ ability to oppose permits and the time allowed for DEQ to adequately assess the application’s claims.
Anne Hedges, Montana Environmental Information Center executive director, said the list of the protections that were eliminated from the law is long.
“The legislators only listened to the industry. The developers said, ‘It’s going to be great – it’s going to bring in tax revenue and jobs.’ And legislators didn’t believe anything that anyone told them to the contrary,” Hedges said. “This is playing out all over the state. These gravel pits come in, and they don’t have any sideboards.”
Knoetgen fears all the negative aspects of having what is essentially an industrial facility next door, including the traffic, dust and the noxious, oily smell of an asphalt plant.
“My biggest concern is going to be noise, given our proximity. They’re going to be crushing gravel, which is a loud thing I’m sure, and having an asphalt plant and all of it continuously running,” Knoetgen said. “And to imagine 100,000 to 200,000 dump trucks going up and down White Coyote Road, right past the Buddha Garden – that is a lot.”
Even if the Arlee neighbors get their hearing, Knoetgen has heard that nothing will come of it. The hearing session is essentially perfunctory, and the applicant will still get their permit.
Libby found out the hard way what its own legislator did by sponsoring HB 599. In March, Libby residents learned that Thompson Contracting had applied to open a gravel pit along the Farm to Market Road outside of town. At a public meeting, opposition was strong. Many said the gravel pit would affect their livelihoods and property values.
Gunderson joined those opposing the gravel pit. But DEQ representatives said the recent changes to the law didn’t allow DEQ to deny permits.
“After the industry wrote it, (Gunderson) didn’t read his own bill,” Hedges said. “The only way that anybody can ultimately win is to sue under the (Montana) Constitution. This violates the public right to participate and it violates the right to a clean and healthful environment. It’s mind-boggling how legislators screwed over their own constituents.”
Like the Libby residents, a group of Arlee neighbors is trying to fight back although it may be too late. They live on the Flathead Reservation so they’ve reached out to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which also own land within a half-mile of the Marvin Rehbein pit.
CSKT spokesman Shane Morigeau said the CSKT is monitoring the gravel pit proposal as it goes through the DEQ process and may weigh in depending on the legality of the outcome. Rehbein owns the property where the gravel pit would be.
The group also contacted Lake County commissioners, legislators and DEQ. Like much of Montana, no zoning exists around Arlee, but they’re asking the county commission to pass some zoning laws.
“Apparently, it worked in Helena. At least it makes everything slow way down. We don’t have zoning here. But I think the time is right for it, because there’s a lot of awareness of it because of the proposed subdivision south of town. The encroaching development and lack of zoning has everyone’s mind is on it,” Knoetgen said.
Riverside Contracting runs 73 gravel pits throughout the state, including four already in Lake County. But Knoetgen doubts that Rehbein would listen to residents’ pleas not to open the new pit and plant. So for now, all they can do is wait.
“The Buddha Garden is kind of the one tourist attraction of Arlee, and they’re going to put a gravel pit and asphalt plant across the road. It’s definitely going to change the experience there,” Talbott said. “This could happen anywhere. Right now, people in Lincoln, Libby and Choteau are dealing with the same thing, and landowners are really upset because they’ve invested a lot of money in property and their property value is going to tank if an asphalt plant goes in across the road.”
Contact Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.