WATSON — Oak Hills residents made impassioned pleas Thursday night for state and federal officials to deny permits for a proposed gravel mine the residents contend would destroy their quality of life and cause their property values to plummet.
The public hearing, held jointly by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was intended to address Southern Aggregates’ application for a water quality certification permit for the proposed mine. But one by one, residents stepped to the lectern in Live Oak High School’s cafeteria to voice concerns about everything from noise and dust to traffic and property values.
Reading from prepared statements, residents young and old said the quiet, peaceful subdivision and excellent schools were the reasons they moved to the area from larger cities like Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Some cited existing health problems they feared dust would exacerbate. Others said they had invested their life savings in homes they may no longer enjoy — and yet may be unable to sell as long as there is a mine next door.
“They don’t bring a whole lot of economic value, as far as I can tell, to the parish, but they do bring a whole lot of hardship,” Parish Councilman Jim Norred, an Oak Hills resident, said of gravel mining operations.
Southern Aggregates Vice President Kevin Black did not speak about the proposed pit Thursday, except to say the operation will follow all local, state and federal rules. In paperwork filed with the regulatory agencies, the company says it provides a vital service to a fast-growing parish like Livingston.
Aggregate resources “constitute the major raw materials used in the construction of roads, bridges, rail lines, hospitals, schools, homes and factories,” the company wrote in an addendum to its permit application. “Sand and gravel therefore is a necessary material needed to continue to fuel the rapid growth.”
The company said it closed one plant on Weiss Road in August and will close a second operation on Weiss and a third on La. 16 in the near future. Those plants produced a total of more than 600,000 tons each of sand and gravel per year. The proposed new plant near Oak Hills will be needed to meet demand for the materials, the company said.
Lynn Dupre, who lives next to another Southern Aggregates mine, warned regulatory officials that they need to enforce the rules they impose on the gravel pits.
Resident William Sellers said Southern Aggregates has had difficulty following rules in the past. Sellers said he found citations against the company for each of its six plants in operation since 2012.
“I’ve been a cop for 18 years. I know about rules,” Sellers said. “They don’t have a good track record following rules.”
Residents pleaded with the company to take its operation somewhere else, away from established subdivisions.
Southern Aggregates stated in its application materials that the company looked at eight alternative sites, but only the 238-acre tract next to Oak Hills met all the criteria for feasibility: sufficient acreage and configuration, gravel in paying quantities, proximity to market, availability, limited wetlands and zoning.
Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré said the regulatory agencies should deny permits for the project. Honoré asked why Parish President Layton Ricks was not at the meeting to stand up for residents, suggesting he might be filming another video encouraging people to move to Livingston Parish. Honoré said residents should make zoning the parish a top priority and they should make it an election issue.
“We were there first,” resident Robert Marionneaux said. “Sand and gravel mining should not be granted the right to completely destroy the quality of life that we enjoy in our subdivision.”
Watson resident Terry Easterly disagreed, saying the mining industry has provided Livingston Parish families with a means of putting food on the table for more than 100 years.
Easterly, who lives next to another gravel mine, said the residents’ concerns are unfounded, noting that her health is fine and she has not been adversely affected by the industry.
“Some homeowners make the mistake of not researching the uses of the land locally before buying,” she said. “But there can be a coexistence between the two.”
Mark Olsen said eight years, the projected lifespan of the proposed mining operation, is a longer time than industry officials suggest.
“Eight years, 24 hours a day, seven days a week is a very long time to worry about how many unknowns will adversely affect our properties,” Olsen said.
Gwen Marionneaux said she and her husband worked a lifetime to save money to build their Oak Hills home 17 years ago.
“I just want to ask the people who are going to vote for this, heart to heart, soul to soul, would any of you want to live where I’m living?”
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen. Contact her by phone at (225) 336-6981.