Watson residents have turned out in droves to oppose the construction of a gravel pit near a residential subdivision, raising wide-ranging concerns beyond the water quality issues slated to be discussed at an upcoming public hearing.

More than 700 residents have signed a petition opposing Southern Aggregates’ plans to locate a 238-acre sand and gravel mining operation within a few hundred feet of the Oak Hills subdivision. Many also submitted written comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, asking the agencies to deny permits for the project.

Many of the comments detail residents’ medical conditions — kidney and bone marrow transplants, suppressed immune systems, cancer, respiratory illnesses, heart disease — and plead for relief from expected dust generated by the gravel mining they fear will further jeopardize their health.

“Going outside to watch my grandchildren and great-grandchildren is one of the joys that keeps me fighting to survive,” wrote Carolyn Kimbel, who said she is battling cancer for the second time. “Please don’t allow this danger to our families’ health and way of life.”

Kevin Black, vice president and general manager of Southern Aggregates, has said the company uses a wet process to curtail dust. The company also plans to use vegetative berms around the site’s perimeter to minimize the noise for neighboring property owners.

Shannon Clement, an elementary special education teacher, said the noise could cause the neighborhood’s children with autism to have “tantrums that cannot be dealt with.”

Clement, who moved to Watson from St. Bernard Parish after Hurricane Katrina, said she felt like the nightmare of the storm and relocation was happening all over again.

Resident Carey Wilson said he was equally concerned about the reverberations from the mining that could ruin home foundations or swimming pools.

Several residents also expressed concern about the operation’s runoff flowing into Spillers Creek, which runs through the subdivision and drains into the Amite River.

“Spillers Creek already fills to the brim when it rains,” Jennifer Lisa Wilson wrote. “The water is murky at times, no doubt run off from the mines north of us, which would also follow the natural drainage of Spillers Creek.”

Potential threats to water quality are the sole focus of DEQ at this point, spokesman Gregory Langley said. Southern Aggregates has applied for a permit from the Corps under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which requires a water quality certification from the state agency.

The agency has agreed to hold a public hearing on the project after Southern Aggregates supplies more information about its plans for drainage, stormwater runoff and erosion control. The company asked for a deadline extension to Oct. 1 to provide that information, and DEQ will take no further action until then, Langley said.

The water quality certification is used to determine whether the activity will impact established, site-specific, water quality standards. In this case, DEQ is reviewing the pit’s potential effect on Spillers Creek and the Amite River.

Aimee Killeen, water quality director with Providence Engineering, told Watson residents at a July 25 community meeting that Southern Aggregates would not discharge processed wastewater into any waters of the state. Only excess stormwater would be allowed to run off the property.

Whether the project also will require an air permit is unclear. Langley said dust emissions are regulated according to state and national standards, but Southern Aggregates has not yet provided the information about its processing equipment and emissions calculations necessary for DEQ to determine what the plant’s dust limit will be.

Don Clement, organizer of the Save Our Hills community group opposing the pit, said the public hearing will be the time for residents to voice all their concerns, whether water-related or not.

“There are many arguments we’ve already formulated to challenge the permit on both sides,” Clement said.

Livingston Parish’s code of ordinances, which doesn’t include zoning provisions, offers residents few other options.

The parish regulates swimming pools, ponds and dirt pits but not gravel pits — a gaping hole in the codes that Parish Councilman Jim Norred intends to fill.

Norred drafted a set of regulations for gravel pits after learning about Southern Aggregates’ plans for the mining operation near Oak Hills subdivision, where he lives. The ordinances are set for public hearing Thursday.

The disparity between what the parish requires for a hole dug for entertainment versus one dug for profit is stark. Swimming pools 18 inches deep or deeper must be surrounded by 5-foot-high fencing with locking gates, but acres-wide mining pits several stories deep must be fenced only if the crater is a “commercial dirt pit” — a term that is not defined in the codes.

No gravel pits have been permitted under the “commercial dirt pit” regulations, Assistant Permit Director Dee Dee Delatte said. Gravel mining operations must obtain construction permits for any on-site structures, such as electrical and plumbing permits for an office, but the parish does not require a permit for the pit itself, Delatte said.

Norred’s ordinances would change that, requiring a $3,000 annual permit fee per pit — that is per hole, not per site — in addition to any needed construction permits.

The ordinance also would require gravel pit operators to perform impact studies, extend their site’s buffer zones, restrict their hours of operation, pave all on-site roads, allow unannounced site inspections, and set up environmental and noise monitoring systems.

In addition, all pits, including those no longer in operation, would need to be surrounded by an 8-foot, solid wood, brick or masonry fence.

Some council members voiced concern about the proposal when it was introduced last month. Norred said amendments are possible, including one to exempt dirt-only pits from the new regulations.

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen.