By Chad Sokol, Daily Inter Lake

KALISPELL – Flathead Valley landowners and neighborhood advocates are among those opposing a bill in the Montana Senate that would ease regulations on open-pit gravel mining.

House Bill 599, sponsored by Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, passed the House on a 67-32 vote early this month and received a hearing in the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Monday.

Proponents of the bill, including representatives of the Montana Contractors Association, said it would remove red tape to speed up the permitting process for open-pit gravel mining, making the final product cheaper for use.

“It’s going to make it easier for contractors, counties, landowners, anybody that needs gravel as a resource for infrastructure,” said Rob Koelzer, of Schellinger Construction Co. “It’s going to save taxpayers money. It’s going to save the state money, and let it get done and still be environmentally responsible.”

Schellinger Construction runs four gravel pits in Flathead County, including one in the West Valley area that the company has sought to outfit for asphalt production, fueling opposition from neighbors and leaders of the nearby West Valley School concerned about traffic and pollution. One neighbor of the pit testified against the bill during Monday’s hearing.

Opponents, including Citizens for a Better Flathead, say the bill would roll back water quality and fire mitigation safeguards, limit public input on gravel pit projects, and eliminate the state’s ability to regulate noise and visual disruptions, effectively allowing gravel pits to operate around the clock.

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