DEQ voids permit application for Helena Valley gravel pit

Helena Valley Gravel Pit
Helena Valley Gravel Pit
Posted at 5:08 PM, Jul 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-21 19:51:21-04

HELENA — The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has voided a permit application for a proposed sand and gravel pit in the Helena Valley.

DEQ made the announcement Wednesday. They said Valley Sand and Gravel, the developers of the proposed mine, had failed to address all the deficiencies they identified in the application.

Kim Smith, the owner of Valley Sand and Gravel, requested a permit in 2019 to mine sand and gravel on a 61-acre site about two miles north of Helena. The roughly L-shaped property is north of Mill Road and west of McHugh Drive.

In May 2020, DEQ identified what it called “substantial issues” with Smith’s plan of operations, and they asked him to address those concerns before the project would be allowed to move forward.

Among other steps, DEQ wanted Smith to do additional work to mitigate the noise from the pit, provide documentation on how they will prevent impacts to nearby groundwater and septic tanks, and confirm that the proposal fits with Lewis and Clark County’s plans for flood mitigation in the Helena Valley.

On June 10, 2021, the department sent Smith a second deficiency notice. In it, they said the application would be canceled unless Valley Sand and Gravel responded to all the identified issues within 30 days.

MTN contacted Kim Smith Wednesday, who declined to comment for the story.

The gravel pit proposal drew vocal opposition from many nearby landowners.

“The word got out real fast, and virtually everybody was opposed,” said Archie Harper.

Harper and Ed Sherman are chair and vice-chair of a group called the West Valley Citizens’ Alliance Network, which was organized to bring attention to residents’ concerns about the project. They argued an open pit mine wasn’t the right use for a property so close to neighborhoods.

“The understanding is it’s predominantly residential – about 600 homes exist within a half-mile radius of this area,” Harper said.

Neighbors raised a number of concerns, including dust, noise, safety, effects on nearby wells, possible changes in flooding patterns and potential impacts on property values.

“Air quality was going to go, water quality was going to go – our way of life basically was going to go,” Sherman said.

Harper and Sherman said they were pleased by DEQ’s announcement, but they still have concerns about what the future of that property will be.

“We’re very comfortable, but still on guard,” said Sherman.

In 2020, nearby landowners successfully petitioned the Lewis and Clark County Commission to create a special zoning district encompassing the 61-acre property and surrounding neighborhoods. They hoped that would block the gravel pit from moving forward.

However, county planner Lindsay Morgan said the county’s legal counsel never made a determination about whether those rules could have been applied to Smith’s project, which had first been proposed before the district was created.

Also, earlier this year, the Montana Legislature passed House Bill 599, which revised the state’s laws on opencut permits. Among other changes, it specifically said zoning regulations could only stop a sand or gravel operation if they were in effect prior to the permit application being filed.