ARLEE — Located about 30 miles north of Missoula on the Flathead Indian Reservation, the Jocko Valley provides views of snow-capped mountains and a respite from Missoula’s winter inversions. The area serves as a home and corridor for abundant wildlife, and off White Coyote Road, the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas borrows from the peaceful nature of the valley as a center for Buddhist studies and traditional gatherings.
But down the road from the Buddhas, a proposed open-pit gravel mine and asphalt plant has residents concerned about a new state law that reduced regulations and shortened the public input process for such operations.
“We all love the simplicity of life here, our agricultural way of life, being able to live here and have clean air,” said Jim Coefield, a resident of the area and president of a new nonprofit called Friends of the Jocko. “This would take all of that away.”
In the spring of 2022, Riverside Contracting applied for a 20-year, open-cut mining permit with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality on more than 150 acres off White Coyote Road in the Jocko Valley.
The permit would allow the company to open an asphalt plant, a gravel pit and a gravel-crushing operation in the heart of the valley.
The permit is pending approval by the DEQ. On Jan. 25, the agency announced it will accept public comment on a draft environmental assessment for the mine until Feb. 24. Comments can be submitted on the DEQ website or by mail.
“This site has had strong interest from the community,” Dan Walsh, DEQ’s mining bureau chief, said in a press release.
Area residents have voiced concerns about potential impacts on the environment, air quality, road traffic and related safety issues, noise levels, dust control, light pollution, property devaluation, and local wildlife, which includes threatened species such as grizzly bears and bull trout.
Residents formed Friends of the Jocko in response to the permit and a new state law that made it easier for open-cut mines and processing facilities to commence without a public hearing. The nonprofit is dedicated to protecting “constitutionally guaranteed rights to a clean and healthful environment and public participation,” according to its mission statement.
“The environmental assessment with a 30-day comment period is a small victory for us because we weren’t really expecting them to offer that,” Coefield said.
Even so, Coefield said, the current DEQ analysis is “very weak,” and he hopes the agency continues to consider the issues that Friends of the Jocko has raised.
Shelly Fyant, former chair of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council, said she was “extremely disappointed” in the DEQ assessment.
“When a project that recklessly affects water, air, wildlife, birds, fish and human health is dismissed as temporarily inconvenienced, or having minimal or no impact, it’s a classic example of conflicting paradigms between capitalism and subsistence economies,” Fyant said.
Until DEQ announced it would take public comment on the draft environmental assessment, residents were unable to formally share those concerns with the DEQ due to House Bill 599, a state law that passed during the 2021 Montana legislative session.
HB 599 transformed the permitting process for DEQ and essentially eliminated the opportunity for public hearings on such proposals. The law reduced the radius of residents who must be advised about proposals to occupied dwellings within a half-mile. Under the new law, DEQ is also not required to hold a public hearing unless more than half of those residents request a hearing within 30 days of receiving a notification.
The bill changed rules about how sites could operate, allowing mining through the night, and lessened protections for water and wildlife. It also counts tribal lands held as a tribal trust as one landowner rather than notifying all tribal members who collectively hold the title to the land.
“It’s utterly ridiculous to me that they don’t have to notify more of the community, because it’s going to affect way more than just people within a half-mile radius,” Fyant said. “I mean, my God, that water goes into the Jocko River, and it’s like a mile from the school, so there will be air-quality issues that will affect the schoolchildren.”
Open-cut mines frequently go deep enough to impact the quality and quantity of groundwater in the area. The mine and asphalt plant would also involve large machinery and trucks, which would increase traffic on small residential roads and spread dust. Dust from asphalt plants can contain silica, a toxic pollutant associated with lung disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asphalt plants are also known to produce toxic air pollutants, including arsenic, cadmium, benzene and formaldehyde, according to findings by the Environmental Protection Agency.
An aquifer beneath the site drains into the Jocko River, where the CSKT have spent millions of dollars to restore habitat for threatened bull trout.
Fyant said HB 599 “gutted any kind of environmental protections that Montanans have, even though the Montana Constitution protects the right to a clean and healthy environment.”
DEQ said in the press release that it “thoroughly reviewed the application to ensure it meets state law” and that the agency “does not base its decisions on a count or tally of how many comments are for or against the project or how many times a certain issue or alternative is brought up.”
DEQ also stated that it would not be appropriate to deny the permit because the applicant “demonstrated compliance with all applicable rules and regulations as required for approval.”
The draft assessment considers the project area and neighboring land within 1,000 feet and is based on information from Riverside’s Contracting’s permit application, site inspections, aerial photography and maps.
According to the assessment, the mine and other operations are anticipated to impact the air quality, including odor and pollutants resulting from asphalt plant emissions — impacts DEQ said would be minor “based on commitments and certifications made by the applicant.” The assessment also notes that additional impacts could occur due to equipment malfunction.
The assessment lists expected increases in construction-related traffic, impacts to neighbors’ lifestyles and the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas regarding noise and air quality, and impacts to wildlife and wildlife habitat.
The project is not expected to create a significant number of new jobs because Riverside Contracting would staff the site with existing employees, according to the assessment.
The current property owner, Marvin Rehbein, also owns Riverside Contracting and numerous other gravel pits throughout the state. Riverside did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
For several months, Friends of the Jocko has asked DEQ to host a public hearing and conduct an environmental analysis of the potential impact of the gravel and asphalt operations.
“All along, it’s been disappointing that the Department of Environmental Quality seems to take the attitude that they represent the permit applicant versus representing the public citizens,” said Elizabeth Reinhardt, a member of Friends of the Jocko who lives on property next to the proposed project.
Friends of the Jocko retained a law firm and hired a contractor to do water and air quality reviews, though Coefield noted that it’s not the residents’ duty to do research.
“They [DEQ] have to do it,” Coefield said. “We’re just pointing out what they have to do.”
Coefield said HB 599 opened the door for gravel mining permits across the state, and added that Friends of the Jocko is leading the fight for more public input on the proposals
“We’re kind of leading this fight because we got established early on,” Coefield said. “We have standing in a court of law, and we’re willing to flesh out all these issues.”
Lake County commissioners, Friends of the Jocko and the CSKT Tribal Council, along with multiple neighbors, requested a public hearing but say they were told by DEQ that the number of requests did not meet the threshold included in HB 599 that mandates a hearing.
“We don’t think the state contacted enough people,” Coefield said. “People that should have been contacted weren’t.”
In September, after the CSKT Tribal Council sent a letter to the department requesting a full Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) analysis and a public meeting, DEQ met with the council and the public.
At the meeting, DEQ Director Chris Dorrington said that DEQ did not intend to hold a formal public hearing, but added that the department would welcome comments.
Jocko Valley residents raised questions about whether DEQ contacted all residents who met the notification criteria and whether the department recorded all of the responses it received.
Fyant and Coefield said at least three people submitted comments that did not appear in a subsequent public information request Friends of the Jocko submitted to DEQ.
At the meeting, DEQ confirmed that the project applicant is responsible for notifying the public and receiving any comments, and acknowledged that the agency does not confirm whether parties are contacted as required by state law. Dorrington also said that water, air quality or material storage wouldn’t be considered, according to the existing law.
DEQ told Friends of the Jocko that one of the missing comments was not accepted because the person who commented did not have an address on file. He had moved to a property within the half-mile radius and begun building a house several months prior.
Riverside stated in application materials that there are 29 residences within a half-mile of the proposed permit boundary.
Fyant said DEQ sent a notice to the tribe as a whole instead of notifying all tribal members who collectively own the land.
“If they’re considering the tribe as one person, that’s not right,” Fyant said. “That land is leased and we all own that in common — all 7,900 of us. So that should be sent to everybody.”
Ultimately, DEQ will have the final say on the permit, though the property is on the Flathead Reservation.
“I think that it’s inappropriate that a non-tribal enterprise sets up here on the reservation in a way that exploits the environment,” Reinhardt said. “The Hellgate Treaty gave the tribe these lands in perpetuity, and that treaty has been broken time and time again. And the fact that the tribe isn’t even the permitter and that it’s the state is really ironic here on the reservation.”
In closing comments at the September meeting, Dorrington said DEQ would consider the comments delivered that night, and DEQ subsequently invited comment on the draft environmental assessment.
Fyant said protecting the land and the environment is part of her duty as a Salish woman.
“In our creation stories, the animals were preparing the Earth for the human beings, and they said humans are going to be the ones with the voice from now on,” Fyant said. “So we have the responsibility to speak for those who can’t, and, as a Salish woman, I take that responsibility very seriously.”
Coefield said that on top of the environmental issues, there are constitutional issues at play that his organization intends to take to court if necessary.
“Our goal, if we end up having to go to court, is that we can reach out around the state to bring in other affected communities and organizations, because the work that we do here and in court will help define this law,” Coefield said.
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