HELENA — The auditorium at Helena Middle School was filled Wednesday with people seeking to comment on a proposal to build a sand and gravel pit in the Helena Valley.
Dozens of people gathered as the Montana Department of Enviromental Quality held a public hearing on the project. The department is currently reviewing the permit application.
“Oral comments tonight, written ones, the ones you’ve already emailed, the ones you’re going to email in the future – this is what helps us to review this application to ensure that it’s okay,” said JJ Conner, acting field services supervisor for DEQ’s Opencut Mining Program.
Kim Smith, the owner of Valley Sand and Gravel, requested a permit last summer 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.
DEQ has until Feb. 26 to either approve the permit, issue a letter identifying deficiencies in the application or determine that an extended review of up to 90 additional days is needed.
The department held a public meeting because more than 30% of landowners within a half-mile of the proposed gravel pit requested it.
Wednesday’s event began with an informal open house, where people were able to speak directly with representatives from DEQ, other public agencies and Valley Sand and Gravel. Those representatives then held a formal question-and-answer session. Finally, audience members gave public testimony.
DEQ says around 200 people signed in at the door Wednesday. About 30 of them volunteered to provide public comment.
Neighbors have raised a number of concerns about the gravel pit project, including dust, noise, safety, effects on nearby wells, possible changes in flooding patterns and impacts on property values.
Ed Sherman said, if the vegetation on this property is removed, he expects widespread issues with dust.
“Good quality air will be nonexistent,” he said. “Never again will I be able to breathe fresh air.”
Les Bramblett argued planned berms around the site would redirect floodwaters toward his home and other nearby residences.
“Where is the water going to go?” he asked. “It’s got to go someplace, and it’s not going into the pit.”
A number of people questioned why a gravel pit was being proposed in what they consider an area with a strong residential character.
“Citizens who moved into the neighborhood – 600-plus homes within a half-mile, 46 homes on the perimeter of this proposed mine and 40 more within a stone’s throw of the mine – will be exposed to a degraded landscape and associated industrial activities that compromise all the values they came here to live,” said Archie Harper. “Their lives and their dreams, they feel, are up in smoke.”
Smith told the audience he had looked at the possibility of developing the property into a housing subdivision, but concluded he couldn’t secure enough water to make it feasible.
He said he believes many of the neighbors’ concerns will be addressed in his proposal. He argued the operations should have little impact on groundwater, that berms around the site will reduce the noise and visual impact on neighbors, and that they will truck water in to keep down the dust.
DEQ leaders said state law doesn’t limit where someone can apply for an opencut mining permit, and that they have the responsibility of determining whether the application meets the requirements under the state’s Opencut Act.
While leaders will take a number of factors into account in the permit decision, not everything the neighbors brought up will be considered. DEQ released a frequently asked questions sheet, which said the department did not have the authority to take issues like neighboring property values or traffic into account when deciding on the application.
DEQ leaders said state law requires them to approve a permit, if the applicant meets all the requirements. If not, they must issue a deficiency letter, giving the applicant up to a year to revise their plan.
“Throughout this process, DEQ’s permit decisions must be made solidly on the requirements of the Act and the rules,” said Kenley Stone, an environmental specialist with the Opencut Mining Program.
DEQ is still accepting public comment through Feb. 21. If leaders determine there are still significant issues that need to be further considered, they will announce extended review is required.
If you want to submit a public comment on the proposed gravel pit, you can go to the DEQ Opencut website.
Editor's Note: This story has been revised to clarify the number of people who offered public comment. The original article said about 200 people had signed up to provide comments. A DEQ spokesperson said around 200 people had signed in to show they were in attendance, but only about 30 signed a separate sheet to offer comments. We apologize for the error.