Gravel pit group chips away at bond issues

One of the key controversies with gravel pits in the borough is who is responsible for cleaning them up after the digging, crushing and hauling are done.

Kenai Peninsula residents complain that gravel pits languish after operators are finished, gathering trash, flooding and possibly lowering property values as an eyesore in the neighborhood. Addressing that complaint was one of the founding objectives for the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Material Site Working Group, which has been meeting since February to discuss and recommend changes to the existing code regulating material sites — a category including a variety of sites including sand, though gravel pits are the most controversial.

 

Neighbors have weighed in throughout the process on issues of noise, dust, traffic, property values and quality of life. Operators have responded that further restrictions will raise the cost of gravel and inhibit private property rights — many operators work their own land. Outside city limits, there are no zoning restrictions in the borough.

The borough Planning Department has targeted a code rewrite that would clarify the process for reclamation and bonding on the site.

“It is in the code, about the bonds, but that has not been our practice,” said Bruce Wall, the borough planner, at the work group’s meeting Wednesday. “We’ve been interpreting that pretty loosely. The state exemption (from bonding) is if you have less than five acres disturbed and if you excavate less than 50,000 cubic yards a year. Really, that’s very few material sites in the borough that fall under that exemption, because most of them are over five acres of disturbed area. We just haven’t been administering that bonding program.”

The Planning Department’s original drafted code rewrite included a suggestion of $2,000 per acre for reclamation bonding, with a five-year reclamation plan required each time the permit renews. Planning Director Max Best said that $2,000 number is up for discussion. Current code does not specify a dollar amount.

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Mining, Land and Water requires a bond for material mining sites — $750 per acre disturbed. However, the borough working group had some concern that the state did not enforce the bond, nor was it scaled for inflation.

If the state enforced its bonding requirement, a borough-required bond would add to the burden. Working group chairman Robert Ruffner asked if the state could defer bonding authority to the borough instead.

“We’re trying to get a little bit more local control and not rely on the state or the feds to kind of take care of our area,” he said. “We’re trying to get more local control. And the state’s already got a $750 cost in mind — if they just delegated it to us, that’d be a good first step, and then we’d have skin in the game.”

Clark Cox, Southcentral regional manger for the Division of Mining, Land and Water, said the state has the authority to require a bond and reclamation plan for material sites like gravel pits within its general mining regulations. While bonds required for oil and gas wells and the larger mines like Fort Knox are pooled together. But bonds for gravel pits are kept separate, in part because they are so much smaller than the largest mines. If one of the largest mines went south, the bonds contributed by the smaller sites would be consumed in that cleanup.

“Because all these little gravel pits … would be an infinitesimal amount compared to Pebble, Fort Knox,” he said. “That’s a practical policy call the department made.”

The reclamation plans are mostly intended to show that the operator thought ahead as to what would become of the pit, Cox said. However, the state has limited ability to enforce those reclamation plans, in part because the mining division has limited staff, he said.

“In Southcentral I have one person who does material sales,” he said. “The only way we really find out about these non state-owned land issues is the neighbor who calls in. That’s usually how we’re alerted to issues.”

The borough-led working group decided to stop meeting for the summer, in part because gravel pit operators may be too busy. The group plans to begin meeting again in the third week of September. One of the conclusions they leaned toward at the May 9 meeting, though, was not to include in the new requirements existing pits or legacy pits that existed before the last code rewrite in 2006, which are not inspected or permitted.

Working group member Larry Smith pointed out that people complaining about the gravel pits now may not see those existing ones fixed, but it could help in the future. “We’re not going to take care of the scars,” he said. “We’re going to take care of the scars from this point forward.”

The ordinance requires reclamation long-term, but the current wording is that the pit owners don’t need to do any reclamation until the material is exhausted, Wall said.

“How are we to determine if an area of a pit is exhausted? “ Wall said. “But if their permit expires and they don’t ask for it to be renewed, then we know it’s exhausted at that point and we can require reclamation and use the enforcement mechanisms in our code with that. But we want to be able to manage it so that it’s reclaimed as it goes.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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