A citizen coalition dubbed the Open Pit Group is protesting a proposal to open a 61.5-acre gravel pit near hundreds of homes in the west Helena Valley.
Group leader Archie Harper said he first found out about the pit when Kim Smith, of Valley Sand and Gravel, gave a presentation to the Helena Valley Flood Committee in June 2019. Smith, who had purchased the land in 2017 from a family who had intended to develop it for housing, filed an application via the Opencut Mining Act with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
Some of the citizens in the area of immediate impact met with the Lewis and Clark County planning and zoning board on July 30 to begin the process for citizen initiated zoning. However, this came after the application and will likely not usurp any decision made by the DEQ. A spokesperson for the DEQ said that the application included a form signed by the county stating the site's zoning was acceptable for opencut operations.
The site, referred to as McHugh 2 in DEQ documents, is a 70.5-acre plot bordering Ronda Road, McHugh Drive, Mill Road, Edgerton Road and Hedges Drive. There are approximately 604 residences within a half-mile radius of the site.
Smith declined to comment for this story.
The proposed pit's potential neighbors have raised a number of concerns related to issues such as water quality, air quality, flooding, and increased traffic flow and safety, to name a few.
Water quality tops the list of concerns. Most area residents get water from wells pulling from the surface water. The area has a seasonal high water table of 13 feet and the pit will have a maximum mining depth of 20 feet. Residents are concerned that this will lead to contaminates in the water.
Flood levels are also a major concern for the residents. Part of the parcel is located within what the Federal Emergency Management Agency has identified as the 100-year floodplain. The fear is that a large open pit will quickly fill with water during the next major flood, which will lead to flooded basements, backed up septic systems and significant damages to neighboring properties.
The DEQ is currently in the process of reviewing the application and Water Resource Assessment submitted by the operator, according to a spokesperson. If any water-related deficiencies are identified, the DEQ would identify them in a detailed deficiency letter.
Harper said he believes that DEQ's assessment of the project application ignores the potential social impacts to nearby residents.
"This project has the scope and magnitude to have a significant impact on public health," Harper said. "DEQ's own website claims its duty is to protect the health and well-being of present and future generations. Frankly, I'm disgusted with the way the laws are skewed to favor industry."
Harper believes the law favors industry like this mining pit as long as regulations are followed, regardless of the impact on the public.
"The system is rigged for them," Harper said. "We wouldn't be doing citizen initiated zoning if not for him (Smith)."
Harper also brought attention to the traffic and safety issue he believes the pit will bring. With multiple bus stops along the edge of the pit and increased overall traffic and gravel trucks on neighborhood roads, Harper believes the potential impact of this pit demands a traffic study. He said DEQ told him it does not have the authority to conduct a traffic study.
Additionally, Harper said the only way to seek relief in the event of an air or water quality event would be to file a complaint with the DEQ.
Marty Stebbins, who recently moved to the area, said she has been doing research on the potential pit and believes the noise level will exceed Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards without ear protection.
Resident Sam Wattnew said many of those he has spoken to in the neighborhoods have been elderly people who are sensitive to water and air quality issues.
"The community has really come together to help create a better quality of life for each other," Wattnew said.
Wattnew also brought attention to the fact that this particular land parcel has acted as an impromptu park for area residents for over a decade. Harper said he believes it would be a good candidate for land trust land.
"It's acted as an informal park. This area is prime for recreational use," Wattnew said. "People in the valley don't have much access to places for recreation."
Resident Loretta Thompson said she doesn't believe there is any way the gravel pit will ultimately be approved. Thompson said she and many others will fight tooth and nail to prevent it. She is a retiree who said she's worked her entire life to carve out a peaceful place to live for herself and that this project will disrupt that.
"This is so out of harmony with what people came to live here for," Harper said. "I even talked to one lady who moved here from the west valley because a gravel pit was going in near her previous house."
It appears the residents may have an uphill battle ahead of them.
This isn't the first time Valley Sand and Gravel has met resistance when attempting to start a new mining operation in the valley. In 2003, Smith ultimately decided against putting a gravel pit on John G. Mine Road, following public outcry. However, it was Smith's decision and not regulations stopping the operation from moving forward.
DEQ follows the procedures outlined by the Opencut Mining Act, a spokesperson said.
"If DEQ finds that the application meets the requirements of statute and rule, DEQ will approve the application," the agency said in a statement. "If the application does not meet the requirements, DEQ will send the operator a detailed deficiency letter identifying items that the operator must correct before DEQ could approve the application. For the McHugh 2 application, we must either issue a deficiency letter, determine that extended review is necessary or approve the application no later than Feb. 26."
Lewis and Clark County has limited control in the situation. The county is not involved in the review process and there are currently no zoning regulations in that area, a spokesperson said. However, the county does have general jurisdiction over issues related to right-of-way access, haul loads, traffic safety issues and activity proposed in Zone A, which is the 100-year floodplain identified by FEMA.
A county spokesperson did confirm that the Board of County Commissioners did approve the boundaries of part 1 citizen initiated zoning in district 51 on Jan. 7. Currently, the county is in the process of creating a development pattern and neighborhood plan for the area and will adopt regulations upon establishment of that plan.
The county remains unsure of how DEQ would react to a zoning change that ultimately prohibits industrial sites in the district. DEQ stated that the application submitted to DEQ included a form signed by the county stating the site's zoning was acceptable for opencut operations and directed questions about whether this has changed to the county.
However, DEQ says it will take public comment into consideration and have scheduled a meeting on Feb. 12 from 5 to 9 p.m. in the Helena Middle School auditorium.
"We understand that those residents living near a proposed site often have more knowledge of the area than DEQ," a DEQ spokesperson said. "If public comments reveal substantial issues not adequately addressed in the proposed Plan of Operation, DEQ may extend its review of the application."
DEQ is requesting that all public comments be submitted by Feb. 21 to ensure that DEQ has enough time to review the comments before the Feb. 26 deadline. It will then determine whether extended review is necessary.