Watson residents grill Southern Aggregates over mining plans

Watson residents bombarded a Southern Aggregates representative with questions and concerns Friday night over a proposed gravel pit that could be located within a short distance of their homes.

The company plans to excavate sand and gravel for commercial sale on a 238-acre site just north of the Oak Hills subdivision, off La. 16 about 2 miles north of Live Oak High School, according to a public notice issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on July 14.

Residents from Oak Hills and the surrounding community met Friday night in the Live Oak High cafeteria to ask Southern Aggregates representative Kevin Black why his company wants to mine so close to their homes and what steps the company would take to alleviate the dust, noise, vibrations and health and safety concerns.

A petition opposing the project has about 400 signatures from residents, organizers said Friday. The petition will be sent to area legislators as well as the Corps.

Gravel pits, even large ones, are not new to the area, particularly in the mostly undeveloped tracts near the St. Helena Parish line. The land north of Weiss Road, which is about 3 miles north of the proposed new pit and about half a mile below the parish line, is riddled with craters in various stages of excavation.

But this latest proposal would put Southern Aggregates’ mining site within 200 feet of residents’ properties. The proposal would include excavation from three mining areas spread across the site, as well as desanding plants, a material processing plant, an office, truck scales and multiple road access points.

In a tense and heated series of exchanges Friday night, Black tried — to no avail — to assuage the community’s concerns.

One man among the crowd of more than 100 expressed support for the project, saying the property owners should not be prevented from making money from their land, despite neighbors’ complaints. Paul Saltaformaggio Jr.’s comments were met with hostility from other residents who argued the pit’s impact on their community would be devastating.

Oak Hills resident Douglas Bowen said it isn’t just about the negative impact on property values and tax revenues, which he and other residents said would be significant, but about quality of life.

“We have a child in our neighborhood that’s autistic,” Bowen said. “Loud noises scare him to death, and he just turns inward.”

Another resident has only one lung and would have difficulty with any dust that might drift from the mining operation to his home, Bowen said.

Several community members asked Black why the company would want to locate so close to their homes, knowing the residents are so vehemently opposed to the mining operation.

“We have to go where the gravel is,” Black said. “It doesn’t come to us.”

Black said the site near Oak Hills has been deemed a viable mining site, and he predicted the operation there would last, at maximum, eight years.

Southern Aggregates uses a wet process to reduce dust, he said, and would create vegetative berms around the site’s perimeter to remain within the 85-decibel noise limit set by parish ordinance.

But resident Arif Qureshi, a practicing physician, said that noise limit still could cause hearing loss over a period of years.

Black also addressed residents’ concerns about potential flooding and stormwater runoff, saying the pit would use ponds to keep the water on-site and typically would discharge water only under stormy conditions.

Bill Sellers said he could not trust Black’s assurances, noting the gravel company was cited just last month for violating Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality regulations regarding water discharges from another of its gravel pits in the Denham Springs area.

“Whether or not it was biblical rains, whether there was animals getting on a boat two-by-two, this order says there was no stormwater control measures in place,” Sellers said, holding a copy of a June 27 letter from DEQ. “If you’re not going to do that, what makes me think you’re going to do anything else you’re saying?”

Residents also were angry to learn that Southern Aggregates had applied for its permits about seven months ago but did not inform residents of the plans until three of the 224 households in the neighborhood received the Corps’ public notice letter July 16.

“The problem is a trust issue,” Danny Andrepont said. “You want us to trust what you say is true, but you knew seven months ago this was a possibility and never once contacted anyone to talk about the issues. Why wait until it’s 20 days to the (public comment) deadline, you’re hearing grief and now you want to talk to us?”

Parish Councilman Jim Norred, who lives in Oak Hills and sponsored a resolution at Thursday night’s council meeting opposing the new pit, said he was shocked to learn the Corps had set such a tight deadline for public comments.

Norred also said Friday’s meeting, while held at Black’s request following residents’ complaints, did not qualify as the kind of public meeting required under federal law.

The lack of proper notice or public hearing is one of several reasons Norred cited in his resolution for opposing the project’s permits. The resolution passed with unanimous support of the council.

While the parish does not have zoning regulations in place, a master plan the council adopted on May 23, 2013, designates that area for agricultural or single-family homes only, giving the council some footing for formally opposing the project, Norred said.

Norred was joined Thursday by Councilmen Chance Parent and Ricky Goff in saying the gravel pit is a prime example of why the parish needs to enact zoning regulations.

“It’s only going to get worse if we don’t,” Parent said.

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter @HeidiRKinchen.