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Home / Articles / News / News Articles /  Harper Companies' Dust Storms Parley's Canyon
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Harper Companies' Dust Storms Parley's Canyon

Canyon Rim residents organize to end pollution from gravel pit.

By Jesse Fruhwirth
Posted // August 17,2010 -

Scott Anderson woke in the night in July to an alarming yet familiar smell. “I made myself get out of bed,” he says, before he grabbed a video camera and headed to the Harper Companies’ gravel pit, about one mile up Parley’s Canyon. He wanted proof of his suspicions that the smell was coming from the pit. The smell, “like somebody’s cutting concrete,” and the accompanying dust, says Canyon Rim neighbor Darrell Wilson, is funneled to their neighborhood and carried along by what should be gentle, refreshing canyon breezes.

But the dusty breezes are anything but refreshing to 17-year-old Karly Anderson, who has asthma and says the dust impedes her breathing. “I have a healthy diet, and I exercise. I’ve never had breathing problems more than when we moved here,” she says.

Residents have collected video and still photographs that they say prove the problem is widespread, impacting thousands of residents in the area, and clearly coming from Harper’s pit.

Watch a portion of the video Scott Anderson filmed around 2:15 a.m. during a morning in July:

The company has acknowledged the dust problem and has made changes to pit operations in response to the complaints from residents and fines from the Utah Division of Air Quality. For example, Salt Lake-based Harper Companies plans to end nighttime operation in hopes that the daytime breezes will flow up-canyon, not down. Some Canyon Rim neighbors, however, are unimpressed with the pace of changes and some doubt Harper is committed to truly fixing the problem.

Beginning in 1886, the site was used intermittently as a quarry until 1985 when it was shut down. The site was reclaimed between 1988 and 1991 when then-owner, Park City resident Ira Sachs, re-established the gravel operation before selling the land to Harper Companies in 2000. Harper applied to expand the pit from a 10-acre site to 62 acres, leading to a court fight between Save Our Canyons and Salt Lake County. In 2004, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that Salt Lake County had improperly granted Harper’s request to expand, citing contemporary canyon-zoning regulations that emphasize “protection of natural and scenic resources,” which, the court ruled, is not compatible with expanding the gravel pit.

Harper’s “Pit #16” continued within its 10-acre footprint, however, which includes permits to pollute the air each year with 24 tons of dust, also known as PM10—particulate matter, a known health hazard. PM10 is regulated by the federal government, and Salt Lake County has, at various times, been in violation of those regulations, deemed a “non-attainment area.”

According to air-quality regulators and the company, the dust was generated largely from the “push off,” or when blasted-off rocks from above are pushed to areas below, where they are crushed. According to a 2009 memorandum describing a violation, “fugitive dust produced from the push-off material and track-out well exceeded the permitted limits.” If dust leaving Harper’s operation area allows less than 90 percent of light through it—known as opacity—the company is also in violation.

For that 2009 violation, Harper was fined $33,000, but paid only $7,750 after agreeing to install water cannons to moisten the mountainside, a tire wash to clean outgoing trucks and pave a road on site to reduce the dust caused by trucks leaving the pit area. A 2008 violation of the same rule was still being negotiated with the Division of Air Quality when Harper received its 2009 violation. The company promised to pave a road on site to reduce its 2008 fine, as well.

Neighbors complain that Harper seems to violate the 10 percent rule far more often than regulators actually issue fines. The Division of Air Quality has the power to fine Harper up to $10,000 per day for air-quality violations, but $33,000 in 2009 was the largest fine assessed against the pit in recent years.

But it may only seem that the regulations are being violated; after all, Harper is permitted to pollute. Environmental scientist Joe Rockwell at the Division of Air Quality says the neighbors can’t expect that 100 percent of the dust will cease to sully their properties; current environmental laws and Harper’s permit simply don’t allow for such strict regulations. As the water cannons are calibrated to reduce dust from the push off, Rockwell is hopeful the problem will be relieved considerably. “[Canyon Rim] will still get some dust, but probably the amount of dust that would be coming off site would be settled off before it reaches their property line or down the canyon,” he says.

Harper director of risk management Lawnie Mayhew says the dust problem is being resolved. He said he fired pit crew employees who were not following proper procedure regarding fugitive dust. He said the water cannons—used to moisten the mountainside prior to push off—are being adjusted to optimize their effectiveness.

None of that instills confidence in neighbors like John Winders, however, who thinks the pit is simply too close to urban areas to be operated safely. He wants the pit shut down, or at the very least, shut down on days when air quality is already poor. Winders spoke to Mayhew recently and was reassured that the fired employees and other measures would solve the problem. Since then, however, he’s learned this wasn’t a one-time problem.

Photos taken by the neighbors:

In response to Winders’ skepticism, Mayhew acknowledges that fugitive dust has been a problem at the pit before but says the sources of it have been different and resolved, one by one: “As the fugitive dust came from different areas, we have addressed those issues on each and every time that we had the fine,” he says. “I want it known that we do take it serious—the complaints on the dust. We do take it serious that we do want to be in compliance.”

Mayhew has even offered to wash cars and windows in the Canyon Rim neighborhood to show the company’s good faith.

The movement of concerned residents is growing despite Harper’s efforts, however. Anderson first complained about it a year ago, leading to a June 1 deadline from Air Quality for Harper to fix the situation. After that deadline passed, and the dust continued, Anderson passed out fliers to neighbors, which Winders, the Wilsons and others have responded to. Tricia Wilson says she’s been in contact with the Canyon Rim Citizen Council, which has been receptive to their concerns, she says. That's little comfort to Karly Anderson's lungs, which can't be cleaned with car washes.

Related: Calcium Springs Farm: Back to the Weeds. A 7/8-acre organic farm located about 1 mile further up Parley's Canyon from Harper Companies' gravel pit, shut down under pressure from Salt Lake County after being unable to comply with strict zoning regulations in Parley's Canyon.

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