By Michael Howell
More than 75 people, mostly residents of the Big Creek area, crowded into the Victor Senior Center on Monday, November 20, to discuss the applications that two local landowners, Wade Moudy and Todd Townsend, submitted to DEQ for permission to construct gravel pits on their property in the vicinity of Big Creek. The Department of Environmental Quality, the permitting authority for open cut mines, mailed a notification concerning the applications to all landowners within a half mile radius of the proposed gravel pits, giving them 30 days to respond with comments. Comments on Moudy’s permit were due by November 24 and comments on Townsend’s are due by December 1. If 30% of those notified ask for a public hearing on the permits, DEQ will set a date to hold a public hearing before making any decision.
The two permits taken together would spread over roughly 24 acres, a little over 10 acres owned by Townsend and 14 acres owned by Moudy, although Moudy is only bonding five of those acres for initial development. The combined permits would allow the extraction of 900,000 yards of gravel. It would allow for a crushing operation and could be operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 365 days a year.
Some area landowners, like Judge Jeffrey Langton, were alarmed at the immensity of what was being proposed. A group of concerned area residents reached out with a letter of their own raising several concerns about the proposals and inviting people to an informal meeting to discuss the issue at the Victor Senior Center. Some of the concerns expressed in the letter included potential noise and vibration, dust, truck traffic and impacts to Mittower Road, potential impacts to existing water rights, visual impacts, and final reclamation.
The permit applicants agreed to attend the meeting, explain what they really intend to do and answer any questions.
Langton, who served as introductory host at the meeting, began by stating, “I am not here saying I’m opposed to this. I’m here with questions and hopefully we will get some answers and possibly narrow down the issues that are really involved here before going into a public hearing.”
One thing he was still trying to get his mind around, he said, was how much 900,000 yards of gravel was. “Unless my math is wrong, that’s enough gravel to cover a 40-foot-wide stretch of road a foot deep for 115 miles. That’s the distance from Hamilton to Polson,” he said.
Permit applicant Wade Moudy, whose permit would allow up to 500,000 yards to be removed, said, “Right, that’s a lot of gravel. I didn’t want to start too small and have to re-permit… I had to put a number on it.”
Langton replied, “One of the things that got me stirred up is that with the two permit applications, the combined total is 900,000 yards. That’s hard to even imagine. If it’s not the intent to take out that much, then I would suggest you lower your figure to what you actually intend to take out.”
Moudy responded, saying, “Well, I had to put a number on it I didn’t want to short it in case I used that much.” He said that he was not going to mine everything all at once and was taking out a bond on just five acres and would mine the five acres and finish the reclamation of that pit before mining anything else. His permit application covers 14 total acres allowing extraction of 500,000 yards of gravel over a 15-year period.
“Although the permit is for 500,000 yards,” he said, “I don’t think I could get that much if I tried. I tried to permit enough to last me a lifetime, ‘til I retire.”
Moudy said the gravel pit was primarily for his own excavating business, but added, “I may sell to other people, but it’s not going to be a public pit.” He said he planned on just using his excavator, “but would not rule out the use of a drag-line,” which is also allowed by the permit. He also said he had no intention to sell the permit. He said he intended to build his own house on the property.
Townsend, for his part, has submitted a permit application for mining 10 acres, removing up to 400,000 yards of gravel over a period of five years. He said in his estimation, based on his past activities, the new pit would probably produce about 300,000 yards realistically.
Both men insist that they are willing to work out a compromise. Moudy said he wanted to “meet in the middle” on this proposal. Townsend said he “had no problem going back through the permit to make everybody happy.”
Asked by a member of the public who was worried about their property values while the project was in progress if Moudy would consider a five-year life span for his project, he said no. But he said he would consider limiting the working hours.
Moudy said neither he nor Townsend specified any hours of operation on their application so DEQ put in the 24/7.
Moudy said he only planned on running the crusher one day a month. He said he would only be operating in daylight hours and could give up working on Sundays. In the end he said, “I would be willing to do an eight-hour work day, five days a week.” In terms of traffic, Moudy estimated that his project would lead to about 1,000 truck-loads per year from the site, while Townsend estimated a few hundred per year on his project.
Both men claim that DEQ actually recommended that they request more than they expect to take so they don’t end up short.
Groundwater is high in the area, estimated at two to five feet beneath the surface. Both of the men plan on leaving open ponds with vegetated berms around them after completion. Townsend would leave one large pond, Moudy plans on leaving three smaller ones on his five-acre pit. Moudy had photographs of a previously reclaimed pit that is now a pond. Townsend has also taken out a bond on his entire ten-acre pit to ensure reclamation of the property after his permit expires.
Max Coleman of Exit Realty, who has been involved in the land transfers concerning the property, said that the plan would actually produce a beautiful, wildlife friendly place in the end.
“This has got to be something that enhances the property and isn’t detrimental,” said Coleman. He said past projects in the area have produced good results.
The most serious concerns expressed at the meeting have to do with potential effects on Big Creek, its fishery and associated water rights.
Langton concluded his remarks by saying, “If these guys don’t intend on doing what is on this permit, then they need to change the permit. They might not own this next year and some gravel company may own it and want everything. That 900,000 yards is insane. Running 24/7, 365, that’s not going to fly. It would help if you have a more realistic application,” he said.
Both landowners agreed to work with a small body of people representing the neighborhood concerns on revising the permit requirements.
DEQ has scheduled a hearing on both permits for Tuesday, December 12 at 6 p.m. at the Bitterroot River Inn.