Bluff Left Out of Gravel Pit Operations, Despite Lease Terms

Eli Beck

The gravel pit north of Bluff has been more active in recent months, and that has some Bluff residents concerned.

“Over the last three months, operations at the pit have expanded dramatically,” the Bluff Town Council wrote in a letter to the State Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), which owns the land. The letter was approved unanimously by the Council on April 5.

“The significantly enlarged site also sheds more dust than in past years and increases our concerns about potential flooding impacts,” the letter continued.

Crow’s Nest Expansion 2 from Joshua Ewing on Vimeo, taken in early March.

The expansion came soon after operation of the pit changed hands last fall.

A SITLA document shows that Sonderegger Inc. took over as the operator of the 185-acre “Crow’s Nest” lease after outbidding Holliday Construction Inc. in Sept. 2021. The bid totaled $325,010 for a 10-year contract. Holliday, which operates another gravel pit near the junction of U.S. Highways 191 and 163, had been the operator since 1996 when the lease area was a third of its current size.

The size of the lease area grew by around 7 acres along with the change in operators in September, but when SITLA gave Sonderegger the go-ahead to mine gravel from the existing footprint on Oct. 12, it was with the stipulation that it would only be on the existing pit footprint, according to the serial register page for the contract. A cultural resource survey would need to be done in order to expand.

That survey was completed on Nov. 2, finding “No Historic Properties Affected” and SITLA allowed Sonderegger to expand the pit within the lease boundaries.

Some Bluff residents and officials are concerned about impacts from the pit that go beyond its footprint. 

The fact that the pit lies within Bears Ears National Monument complicates the issue for Joe Neuhof, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa.

“Even if there isn’t an archaeological site on the exact location of the operation, it’s affecting and degrading cultural resources all around it….” he said. “When a tribal member comes to visit their ancestral resources that are around this gravel pit, the feel, the context, the cultural landscape is impacted by a gravel operation and busy trucks going back and forth and all of the sound associated.”

Other residents worry about dust and floods, echoing the concerns in the Town Council letter.

“It goes over to the edge of some of … the rock-defended spurs that overlook Cottonwood Canyon as well so there could be dust and noise and runoff impacts to Cottonwood Canyon too,” said Dr. Mary Gillam, a Bluff resident and retired geologist with a background studying gravel deposits.

The lease area north of Bluff is directly below the lot for a proposed solar farm, and within city limits. Source: SITLA

Gillam also offered some reasons why it may make economic sense for the pit to be located where it is.

“One of the reasons that pit has been exploited is that gravel resources in the area are somewhat limited and the cost of gravel is closely related to the haul distance from the pit to the site where it’s used,” she said.

“One has to ask, if that pit didn’t operate, what are the alternative locations and what would their impacts be?” she continued. “And I think in some cases the impacts to the town might be worse, but at the same time, I think that operations at that pit should be regulated to minimize the impact to the town.”

No Operations Plan

Existing regulations in the lease that could’ve given Bluff officials the opportunity to weigh in on Sonderegger’s operations were skipped over. The lease states that the permittee “shall, at least 90 days prior to commencement of any surface disturbing activity, submit to SITLA a plan of operations in compliance with Utah Administrative Code R850-32-1000.” But no operations or reclamation plan was submitted by Sonderegger, according to SITLA officials in response to a public records request. 

Sonderegger did mention some reclamation practices like contouring and reseeding in its bid to SITLA, but an operations plan would have had to be much more detailed. The lease states that the operations plan should address lighting, noise, storm drainage, erosion, and dust, among other impacts, and that the lessee should obtain a conditional use permit from the local land use authority.

“The lease between SITLA and Sonderegger calls for a mining plan and SITLA ought to demand it, and Sonderegger ought to provide it,” Gillam said in an interview in March. “And also the lease calls for a conditional use permit from the town and the mining and reclamation plans should factor into whether the town decides to give a conditional use permit.”

The operations plan requirement is backed up by strong language in several places within SITLA’s Administrative Rules. R850-23, Sand, Gravel and Cinders Permits, for example, states that “prior to the commencement of any activity authorized by a permit the permittee shall submit, for the director’s approval, a plan of operations….” That plan would need to include the location and sequence of excavation areas, stockpile areas, and a reclamation plan. 

Another section of SITLA’s rules that also applies to gravel permits states, “Under no circumstances shall the lessee/permittee commence operations without a plan of operations approved by the agency.”

“Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t, and this one we didn’t,” said Keli Beard, senior legal counsel for SITLA, when asked why SITLA did not require an operations plan.

Generally, our leases and our rules are for the benefit of SITLA,” she added. She said the people who manage contracts for SITLA talk to the operators, look at the operations, and if they need to see an operations plan, they will ask for one. 

Andy Bedingfield, the SITLA mineral resource specialist who manages the lease, declined to comment. 

Sonderegger never approached Bluff for a permit, according to Mayor Ann Leppanen, despite being located within city limits. San Juan County Planning Commission agendas for the past year also show no conditional use permit applications from Sonderegger.

The letter from the Bluff Town Council asks SITLA to request that Sonderegger suspend operations until it complies with the lease.

Close-up of the gravel permit area. Source: SITLA

Bears Ears Complications

SITLA land within Bears Ears National Monument is on the table to be traded for other federal land in the state. It’s a deal that would help SITLA meet its obligation to maximize revenue for schools, and the trade would likely mean protections for the lands traded out in accordance with management of the Monument. 

But the letter issued by the Bluff Town Council sheds doubt on the prospect of the gravel lot being traded: “Maps shared with us … show that SITLA does not intend to trade out significant acreage north of Bluff that is within Bears Ears National Monument and which is also within or adjacent to Bluff town boundaries.”

“Public reports suggest that SITLA may be desiring to keep lands north of Bluff for a future solar development, which our Town Council has previously raised significant concerns about with SITLA,” the letter says. 

What’s Next?

Sonderegger did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but Keli Beard, the senior legal counsel for SITLA offered a glimpse of what the future may hold for the operation. 

“The permittee did some mining over the winter and has, from what we understand, stockpiled about three to four years’ worth of gravel on the permit property for his own operations” said Keli Beard. “So, unless the market … is greater than what he expects, then there should be no more mining at the site for about three to four years.”

Sonderegger submitted a $65,000 cash reclamation bond to SITLA in November of last year. SITLA would use that money to reclaim the area at the end of the lease term in the event of Sonderegger not reclaiming the land.

Gillam pointed to the difference between unreclaimed pits near the junction of Highways 163 and 191 versus reclaimed pits east of town. Taller slopes, piles of topsoil, and sharp elevation changes are visible in the unreclaimed pits are some of the common traits of unreclaimed pits, according to her.. Reclaimed pits are smoother.

Not including the cost of reclamation, Sonderegger would need to make $325,010 over 10 years just to break even on its bid for the lease. How much gravel it takes to do that, and to make a profit, will depend on demand.

“We want to make sure that any type of impact is appropriate and aligns with the intent of the monument,” said Neuhof. “We would hope that the gravel operator abides by their lease and does everything that they can do to mitigate impacts and be a good neighbor and a good operator for both the community and the monument.”

SITLA has yet to respond to the Town Council’s letter.