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Residents concerned with asphalt plant form coalition

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A group of Morgan residents concerned with asphalt production at the former Wilkinson gravel pit in Enterprise has formed a coalition, the Morgan Valley Families for a Healthy Environment, and hired a land use attorney.

“This is a serious nuisance issue,” said Bill O’Malley, MVFHE president.  “One of the largest construction companies in the state has taken over a small intermittently used asphalt plant and ramped up operations with the intent to produce up to 500,000 tons of asphalt annually, based on an approval granted in 2000.  Our homes sit within Enterprise, a small topographically enclosed area of 3.7 miles.  In a nutshell, there is nowhere for the noise, fumes and toxic emissions to go except come down on the homes and property of 605 area residents.”

The group filed a limited liability company with the state of Utah in late February, has appointed board members and selected a mission statement: “We will work to protect Morgan Valley by promoting smart growth including the careful evaluation of proposed land uses.  We will support leveraging the area’s greatest asset—a beautiful valley and a highly desirable rural community.  By promoting and creating additional trails and recreational uses, Morgan Valley can become a magnet for more summer and winter activities and events.  This will attract complimentary industrial growth and the jobs and residents will follow.”

Environmental concerns

O’Malley, who moved to Enterprise in 2010, said that living next to the asphalt plant is like being subjected to second hand smoke.

The group has also aligned with the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE), which has raised the level of awareness on the health effects of air pollution across the Wasatch Front.  A majority of UPHE’s board is comprised of physicians and has researched the negative health effects from gravel pits and asphalt plant operations in places such as Petaluma, Calif.

Tim Wagner, UPHE executive director, recently visited the Enterprise area to assess the situation.  He said he doesn’t think, but he knows that Morgan residents’ health could be affected by the plant.

“This is not rocket science,” said Wagner, who earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Utah State University and has been a professional conservation advocate for two decades.  “We’re literally talking about contaminants from this plant that will most certainly cause health problems for the locals living in the immediate vicinity.  The operation’s discharge of water will also contaminate area water sources.  The subdivision’s wellhead is located right in the center of the site.”

“Research says it is water mist,” said County Attorney Jann Farris.  “If they think otherwise, they should call the EPA.”

But Wagner said residents should be concerned.  “Based on what I know about environmental regulations and the consequences of when such regulations are ignored, it certainly wouldn’t surprise me to see this morph into some type of legal action,” Wagner said.

Legal action looming?

And it seems both the coalition and the county are prepared for legal action.  MVFHE has hired their own land use attorney, Jeffrey W. Appel with the Salt Lake law firm Ray Quinney & Nebeker. Appel assisted the coalition with compiling a list of 28 questions regarding the expansion and operation of the Geneva Rock asphalt plant and gravel pit, addressed to the Morgan County Council.  See the questions online.

The 28 questions were prepared after Morgan County Council members expressed interest in speaking about the Geneva plant with neighbors, plant operators and county staff.  In a public meeting, the council established guidelines for the meeting, which included residents submitting questions prior to the meeting so staff could be thoroughly prepared to address relevant concerns.  The meeting which was contemplated to be held at the beginning of March has yet to occur.

Farris said the gathering will not occur, mostly because the Geneva issues are not before the county as an official item of business such as a public hearing, agenda item, application or court case.  After receiving the questions, which he said read like interrogatories in a court case, Farris advised members of the county council not to respond to residents’ questions about the Geneva pit.

“It put it in a different arena when the questions were on attorney letterhead,” Farris said.

Instead, council members should direct individuals to the county planning office to get their questions answered, he said.

“The code does not call for a meeting,” Farris said.

Things are a-changing

The coalition and its counsel claim that while the gravel pit was owned by the Wilkinsons, it was close to being exhausted and operations were intermittent.  But that when Geneva Rock purchased the plant in October, things visibly changed.

“Geneva Rock’s plans for this site (appear) to constitute a new use under the existing Morgan County’s Ordinances,” according to a letter from Appel to Farris.  “As we understand their plans, material will be trucked in and the asphalt plant expanded to increase production beyond any previous levels.”

Since Geneva took over six months ago, O’Malley claims that nearby residents have been smelling new smells and watching production taking place at times they are not accustomed to.

When Geneva purchased the pit, “residents knew immediately that something new was going on,” said O’Malley, who lives about 1,500 feet from the plant.  “We’ve noticed a difference.  Traffic changed.  There were new piles of asphalt.  We could not open the windows at night with their night processing going on.  They are going full bore at night.”

Geneva representatives met with area residents in November, where they said the Enterprise pit would be their northern base of operations with plans for the production of 500,000 tons of asphalt annually when the previous owners only produced between 13,000 to 14,000 tons, O’Malley said.

“I have seen no evidence that these new and expanded uses on the property have been properly reviewed by the county, much less subjected to a viable permitting process,” Appel’s letter reads.  “I do not believe these problems or this citizen uproar is going to go away and if you and the County Council continue to ignore them, such inaction will likely exacerbate the problem.”

Who regulates?

County officials have previously said that the county is not in the business of monitoring air quality and that that responsibility rests with state and federal regulating agencies.  If any county business violates state and federal regulations, the business can be shut down, they said.

“Our small county does not have professionals in place to monitor to make sure (they are operating) in county codes,” Farris said.  “We are not equipped to be the EPA or water purifiers.”

However, MVFHE said the county should not just rely on the state and fed, but have their own air quality, pollution control and water protection ordinances in place.

“We want a county plan with zoning that promotes clean air and that takes citizens’ health and safety into consideration when approving land uses,” said Ray Allen, MVFHE board member and former head of research and development at Browning Arms.  “There are just too many serious health issues with the residents in and around this plant which are beyond coincidence.  We believe our residents have been put at great risk, including our children, adults and senior citizens.”

Farris said he has been “keeping an eye” on the plant for the last few months, “and I can’t see anything to substantiate their claims.  As an attorney, I have seen nothing illegal or inappropriate, no reason to be embroiled in a lawsuit.

“I applaud this group for their energy, but we need to work in our codes and law and not let emotions drive us.  As the county attorney, I try to take the emotion out of it, and do what keeps the county out of a lawsuit,” Farris said. “Even if 1,000 residents want the pit gone, it doesn’t matter.  They can buy it or put up with it.  We can’t just shut it down.  It is not a matter of democracy.  All this hysteria is much ado about nothing right now.”

But O’Malley is not so sure.

“This is a growing environmental crisis that will impact health and the environment.  We are all impacted and it will only get worse.  The county planning commission and council need to be concerned with the health and welfare of our community, families and children.  How can they do that by burying their head in the sand?” said O’Malley, who married Morgan native Buffy Johansen.  “I am sure there are members of the community who think we are anti-business and growth.  We are not.  We are pro-smart growth.  Our group is an informed group, a positive group, not a bunch of people who decided to pop off.  We are not going to go away.  This is not just a little dust-up.  This is committed families that have committed to protecting lives.  This is a problem that needs to be resolved.”

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