Watson residents ask for public hearing to fight proposed gravel pit

A group of Watson residents opposed to a proposed gravel pit near Oak Hills Subdivision has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a public hearing on the project, but that decision may fall to another agency.

The group, known as Save Our Hills, has gathered more than 700 signatures on a petition opposing Southern Aggregates LLC’s plans to mine for sand and gravel on a 238-acre site just north of the subdivision, off La. 16 about 2 miles north of Live Oak High School.

Gravel pits are not new to the area, but this latest proposal would put the mining site within 200 feet of residents’ properties, sparking concerns among residents and public officials alike about possible health and safety hazards, declining property values and quality of life.

The Livingston Parish Council passed a resolution July 24 formally opposing the project. The Amite River Basin Drainage and Water Conservation District sent a letter to the Corps Aug. 4 expressing concerns over the pit’s potential impacts on the river.

A public comment period for the project, held jointly by the Corps and state Department of Environmental Quality, ended Wednesday. Permits from both agencies are required for the project to move forward.

Spokesman Ricky Boyett said late Wednesday that the Corps was still compiling the written comments it received, but the concerns seemed to focus primarily on air and water quality issues.

“Given that these issues fall under DEQ, we would defer to them on whether a public hearing is needed,” Boyett said, noting that the Corps would participate in the hearing if one is held.

DEQ spokesman Greg Langley, reached by phone late Wednesday, said the state agency had not yet decided whether to hold a public hearing.

Lisa Jordan, deputy director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, said in a letter to the Corps on Tuesday that Southern Aggregates’ mining plans raised “substantial safety, environmental and health issues” that could be better addressed orally at a hearing.

Writing on behalf of Save Our Hills, Jordan said, “Aside from the fact that many people are uncomfortable expressing themselves in writing and could offer much more relevant detail orally at a hearing, the written comment period is insufficient because of the lack of notice that the affected citizens had about this project and their opportunity for input.”

Parish Councilman Jim Norred, who lives in Oak Hills, said only three homeowners within the 224-home subdivision received the July 14 public notice, which gave residents until Aug. 3 to submit written comments.

“We asked for an additional 30 days, and they gave us a 10-day extension,” Norred said.

Resident Don Clement Jr. said the lack of notice, alone, should be enough grounds to deny permits for the project, but the pit’s potentially devastating impact on the surrounding community also warrants the agencies’ rejection.

Lynn Dupre, who lives about 5 miles from the proposed pit, said she supports Oak Hills’ fight against the mining operation because she knows first-hand what living next to one is like.

“The noise is atrocious, the dust is just incredible, and the vibrations from the equipment has caused the heating and air vents in my ceiling to start dropping,” Dupre said.

Dupre lives in an area off Sims Road, about 100 feet from another gravel pit. Several Oak Hills residents, including Councilman Norred, have visited Dupre to check on the dust and noise levels that come with a mining operation, she said.

“They were here, shaking the trees in my yard, and dust was just flying everywhere,” Dupre said. “They had it all over their shoes.”

Dupre said she owned the property for about four years before the pit became her closest neighbor. She received no written notice of its arrival.

“That’s what bothers me more than anything,” Dupre said. “It’s hard for one person to fight big business. We were the little person. But when I saw the story about what was happening to Oak Hills, I knew I had to get involved.”

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter @HeidiRKinchen.