Queries surround possible quarry expansion
Law firms now representing company seeking BLM permits has ex-ties with deputy Interior chief
May 6, 2018
As some Glenwood Springs residents mobilize in opposition to a major limestone quarry expansion north of town, concerns are not limited to the environmental impacts that could result from the operation should it be approved.
There are looming concerns about potential political influence from the very top of the U.S. Department of the Interior when and if a formal application comes before the local Bureau of Land Management field office for review.
The current Deputy Secretary of the Interior, Rifle native David Bernhardt, once worked for and was a shareholder in the law firm now representing the mining company.
As previously reported by the Post Independent, Oasis Creek homeowner Jeff Peterson said he met for about 90 minutes in early April with Bobby Wagner from Rocky Mountain Resources along with a legal representative from the company's Denver and Washington, D.C.-based law firm.
The conversation focused on RMR's pending submittal to the BLM to greatly expand the acreage at the long-established Mid-Continent Limestone Quarry along Transfer Trail and bump production from 20 dump truck loads a day to possibly 250 to 350 a day, for a 1,150 to 1,650 percent increase.
The legal representative also at the discussion table at that April 10 meeting, according to Peterson, was Michael Stratton, a senior policy director with the firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. The law and lobbying firm's website describes Stratton as "one of the nation's most well-known political consultants," and a resident of both Denver and Washington, D.C.
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That's the same law firm that Trump administration appointee and current Interior Undersecretary Bernhardt worked for and was a shareholder in between federal government stints with two Republican administrations.
In 2016, the year Stratton joined the law firm, lobbying revenues totaled roughly $25.6 million and in 2017 ranked second among federal lobbying shops, according to the firm's website. The firm attributes this success to, among other things, "decades of experience working on both sides of the aisle, and the insight and connections to go with it. From former U.S. senators to presidential appointees …"
President Trump, in April 2017, nominated Bernhardt for the position of Deputy Secretary of the Interior. Last July, the U.S. Senate confirmed Bernhardt, and on Aug. 1 he was officially sworn in.
The Deputy Secretary of the Interior serves as the second-highest-ranking official for the Department of Interior, which oversees the BLM.
The Mid-Continent Quarry operates on long-held mining claims under permit on BLM land. Although a formal proposal from RMR regarding its anticipated expansion, production level and truck trips has not yet been submitted, the BLM ultimately would decide what level of review to give the proposal and is charged with approving or denying the application.
From 1998-2001, Bernhardt worked as an associate at Brownstein Hyatt Farber. From 2006-2009, under the Bush administration, Bernhardt served as Solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior — the department's third most powerful position.
In 2009, according to a July 2017 Denver Post article about the Trump appointment, Bernhardt rejoined the firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck at its Washington, D.C., office under the title of shareholder in natural resources, litigation practices, and government relations. He left that position to become Deputy Secretary of the Interior.
According to Jayson Barangan, lead public affairs specialist for the BLM in Colorado, decisions on applications for natural resource extraction on BLM lands are made at the local and regional level.
"We would keep leadership in the loop regarding the proposal and the process for reviewing the proposal, but just let me be clear, it's the field manager that will be making the decision," Barangan told the Post Independent.
Asked about a potential conflict at the top of the BLM's chain of command, area BLM spokesman David Boyd echoed Barangan's statement that, while there is upward communication, such decisions are made locally.
"It's all one agency, so the decision is made locally, but other levels of the agency are aware of higher profile issues and decisions … and there's briefings and discussions," Boyd said.
"If you have other questions about this proposal you can ask me, and I'll tell you what I can," Boyd also said.
RMR currently operates a small limestone quarry just north of Glenwood Springs, covering approximately 20 acres across six mining claims at the base of Transfer Trail. Barangan confirmed the company holds a total of 41 mining claims covering approximately 820 acres in the area.
When asked about the pending application and the law firm's future association with RMR once that application is submitted, Vice President of Colorado Operations Bobby Wagner stated, "We are currently in a quiet period and therefore have to decline an interview or statement."
In addition to the BLM's review of the proposal, some level of review would also likely come before Garfield County and the city of Glenwood Springs.
Asked about Bernhardt and his former ties with the law firm potentially representing RMR, Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky stated, "It's a non-issue, in my opinion, total non-issue."
City officials have also thus-far been quiet about the pending proposal, but City Council has been meeting in executive session with the city attorney to gather legal advice ahead of the formal public comment period that would ensue.
Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck's website's homepage states, "Where business, law and politics converge." It also reads, "Our deep experience, multidisciplinary approach and political connections deliver results. Because today, successful outcomes require more than just practicing law."
Meanwhile, residents in the Oasis Creek subdivision have been building public awareness about the forthcoming plans, even preparing a PowerPoint presentation based on early representations from company officials that has been shared around to different groups and on social media.