MISSOULA - Arlee residents battling a proposed gravel pit have scored one thing few other Montana communities get anymore — an environmental assessment. But, the assessment’s conclusions don’t go in their favor.
On Wednesday, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) published an environmental assessment for the 160-acre Marvin Rehbein gravel pit and asphalt plant proposed northeast of Arlee on the Flathead Reservation. The assessment found no criteria that would keep the gravel pit from becoming operational.
DEQ determined that the gravel pit wouldn’t affect surface or groundwater quality or quantity, even though neighbors expressed concern about a historic stream called Pellew Creek. DEQ also anticipates that air quality may be somewhat affected by dust from the pit and air pollutants from the asphalt facility but considers the effects short-term and negligible, although the pit operator would also need to obtain an air quality permit.
The Montana Natural Heritage Program lists 20 species of concern in the vicinity, including bull trout and several bird species, but DEQ said they can move to other areas while the pit is in operation.
Because the pit and asphalt plant can operate around the clock for 25 years, DEQ said “nearby residences would incur visual and noise impacts during operation” but the pit operator proposed putting up berms to reduce the effect.
“The proposed operation could have a minor impact on the neighbors’ lifestyles surrounding the proposed permit area, including The Garden of One Thousand Buddhas. Direct impacts could be from resulting changes in industrial noise and air quality, but the severity of those impacts will vary with their distance from the proposed opencut operation,” according to the environmental assessment.
The public has until Feb. 24 to comment on the environmental assessment.
“This site has had strong interest from the community,” said Dan Walsh, DEQ’s mining bureau chief in a release. “While DEQ thoroughly reviewed the application to ensure it meets state law and drafted an environmental assessment to disclose the anticipated impacts, DEQ is accepting public comment on the environmental assessment.”
To say there was “strong interest” is an understatement, said Arlee resident Jennifer Knoetgen. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe has voiced its concern about how the gravel pit and 24-hour asphalt plant would affect the environment. Many residents of Arlee have formed a nonprofit organization, Friends of the Jocko, specifically to oppose the gravel pit and establish zoning in the Jocko River Valley.
Knoetgen had yet to read the assessment but said the Friends of the Jocko would definitely be commenting.
“We have been pushing to get this environmental assessment. It’s a request we made, it’s a request the tribes made. We’ve asked everyone to push on the DEQ to make them do this, because we thought it was necessary and we didn’t think they were giving them due diligence,” Knoetgen said. “We’re just getting ready to contract with a hydrologist to do a study for us. So, hopefully, this draft environmental assessment buys us a little bit more time to get that study done and in front of the DEQ.”
In mid-June, Arlee residents learned that Missoula-based Riverside Contracting, Inc., had applied for a DEQ permit to dig the Marvin Rehbein gravel pit and run a 24-hour asphalt plant within a half-mile of 24 residents, including the Garden of A Thousand Buddhas. Several more residents live within a 2-mile radius but the DEQ doesn’t consider them to be affected since the 2021 Legislature.
The first red flag for residents was that several weren’t notified of the proposal, learning of the pit only through the grapevine. The second flag was learning that DEQ would hold a public hearing on the proposal only if more than half of the residents within a half-mile requested a hearing within 30 days of the initial notification.
Knoetgen tried to rally her neighbors to request the hearing only to learn that even if they got a hearing, DEQ wouldn’t act on any of the issues raised due to a new law passed by Republicans during the 2021 Legislature.
With the passage of House Bill 599, sponsored by Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, many gravel pit safeguards that existed previously disappeared, along with citizens’ ability to oppose permits, and the time allowed for DEQ to adequately assess the application’s claims was cut drastically.
Since June, DEQ has refused to hold a hearing for the Arlee pit. So the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes held their own hearing at the end of September, allowing residents to testify about their concerns, which are many, from worries about groundwater to constant light and noise pollution from the asphalt plant to high levels of truck traffic on Arlee’s dirt roads that would last until 2047.
The only reason the gravel pit hasn’t opened yet is because DEQ had flagged some deficiencies in the application that weren’t resolved until Dec. 6. In the meantime, Friends of the Jocko have reached out to the Lake County commissioners and other communities trying to fight the same issue, including Helena, Shepherd and Libby.
Libby is one of the few towns that have been granted a public hearing, and residents were frustrated when it led nowhere.
Riverside Contracting has around 80 gravel pit permits or permit applications, and DEQ has conducted environmental assessments on eight of them, including the Marvin Rehbein, since HB 599 went into effect, according to the DEQ permit list.