Assembly digs water protection

Proposed ordinance would place increased burden on gravel pit owners

Posted: Friday, July 08, 2005

Gravel pit developers seeking borough land-use permits would have to show proof that their projects would not harm aquifers serving neighboring properties under a proposed ordinance being considered by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

Assembly member Dan Chay, of Kenai, has sponsored Ordinance 2005-13, which would put the onus on materials site owners to demonstrate that extraction activities would leave neighboring water supplies untouched. In some cases, owners could be required to obtain a signed statement from a licensed hydrologist backing up that claim.

The proposed ordinance, which is set for public hearings Aug. 2 and Aug. 16, would mark a departure from current law. The existing code requires that a material site not "negatively impact the quantity and quality of an aquifer" serving other properties and sets limits prohibiting material extraction within a certain distance of a water source. But the code places the burden of proof that damage has occurred on a complaining neighbor, not on the pit operator.

"We had a Board of Adjustment dealing with a gravel pit issue and had a lot of conversation about this one (current) paragraph that turned on its ambiguity," Chay said Wednesday.

His proposal would require that, prior to issuance of a conditional land-use permit, the applicant provide "reasonable and compelling evidence" showing extraction would not harm an aquifer. Chay said the ordinance was an attempt to level the playing field and give the law somewhat more clout in protecting pit neighbors.

The draft language goes on to say, however, that a permit applicant might be required to supply supporting data, including a statement from a "duly licensed and certified hydrologist" stating that the pit will not negatively impact an aquifer serving other properties.

That level of assurance may be problematic according to hydrologist Geoff Coble, owner of Coble Geophysical Services in Homer. He said it is unlikely someone could get a hydrologist to sign off on what appears to be an absolute guarantee.

"It's an interesting problem," Coble said. "Every hydrologist would agree that everything you do would change conditions at some level. You can't ever do something without changing something else."

Coble also pointed out that the state of Alaska has no licensing or certification program specifically for hydrologists, though it does for engineers and geologists. In addition, Coble argued that language suggesting an applicant might be required to supply supporting data should be more concrete.

"Either it should be required or it shouldn't," he said.

Finally, Coble said the borough should create a central bank of data on the impacts of materials extraction in order to be able to effectively track the cumulative effects on groundwater flow over time.

A committee comprised of assembly members Ron Long, of Seward, Milli Martin, of Diamond Ridge, and Gary Superman, of Nikiski, along with Planning Director Max Best, gravel pit administrator Crista Cady and borough attorney Holly Montague, is reviewing the proposed ordinance, as well as taking a broader look at the materials-site land-use permit code for other possible changes.

Best noted Coble's concern over signing off on an absolute assurance no damage would occur. Hydrologists tend to be cautious when predicting the future behavior of groundwater, he said Tuesday. At most, they provide "a snapshot in time." Any number of things, including the effects of extraction or the impact of an earthquake could change everything, he said.

"We expect input from the (hydrology) industry on what they would sign off on and what kind of mechanisms you might put in place before it (the effect of extraction) becomes a problem," he said.

Much of the recent debate surrounding gravel pits and their potential for affecting the lifestyles and property values of neighbors has come out of the Anchor Point area, a region that has supplied gravel to projects on the lower Kenai Peninsula for decades. Some pits have been said to cause environmental damage at least on an aesthetic level, and some have probably contributed to a retreat in property values in some places. New applications typically draw protest from neighbors who feel threatened by those projects.

But one gravel pit operator who has been in the business at Anchor Point for 26 years says allegations that gravel pits have damaged the water supply of neighbors are just that — allegations.

"I'm somewhat biased about this," said Buzz Kyllonen. "But we have never had a problem in the history of Alaska of a gravel pit contaminating an aquifer," he said. "Unless you dewater an area — that would impact an aquifer."

When people have a problem with their wells they tend to point fingers and blame the nearby gravel pit, he said.

Chay's ordinance, Kyllonen predicted, would place an intolerable set of requirements on small gravel pit operators, not to mention the difficulty of finding a scientist willing to sign off on an absolute guarantee no aquifer would be damaged.

"That's impossible to do," he said. "It would be like me guaranteeing a 747 won't crash into your house."

The result, he warned, could be the disappearance of the mom-and-pop gravel pit operation.

"You'll get one large gravel supplier and that will drive up costs. That's my worst-case scenario," he said.

Kyllonen also said that while some operations had certainly turned their surface territory ugly, the existence of gravel has made neighboring properties more valuable, not less.

Mary Trimble, with Coastal Realty, said that all depended upon what a buyer was looking for. Someone seeking seclusion and beautiful vistas wouldn't find a neighboring gravel pit particularly appealing. Thus, for that buyer, the property would be less valuable. On the other hand, someone interested in the property for its gravel content may well see it quite valuable indeed.

"If I were marketing a piece of property, the reputation of the pit owners could help or hinder the value," she said.

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