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St. Helena Parish Roads Superintendent Al Franklin, left, and Police Jury President Frank Johnson, right, look at damage to Nesom Road near Pine Grove.

After dump trucks tore up a road the St. Helena Parish police jury recently spent $258,000 to fix, a few local officials and residents want to shut down the gravel company responsible for the damage — an effort the business owner calls “harassment.”

St. Helena Parish police jury president Frank E. Johnson accuses Louisiana Aggregate Materials, a gravel mining company operating in Johnson’s district near the St. Helena-Livingston line, of lacking permits from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. And Johnson wants the company to foot the bill to patch an RV-sized hole in Nesom Road’s asphalt. 

After the parish repaved the road this spring, it proved too weak to stand up to the gravel trucks’ weight.

“That hole was so big it was pathetic,” the police jury president said.

Records show the company has filed for permits, however. And Louisiana Aggregate Materials owner Guy "Tony" Modica says the hole emerged in the asphalt because Johnson and the police jury didn't put enough money and resources into building a sturdy roadway. 

"100% right the trucks have torn up the road," Modica said. "It’s tearing up because (Johnson) built a sub-standard road."

After growing weary with the noise of gravel-hauling flatbeds and damage to the road they use to get to their homes, some Nesom Road residents share Johnson’s ire.

“It took us two years to get this road paved good,” said James Robertson, 75, who lives in a house on Nesom Road a few hundred yards west of the gravel mine. “Then, in a few weeks’ time, they’d destroyed it.”

St. Helena Parish has little of the development and a fraction of the populations of neighboring Tangipahoa and Livingston parishes. But despite a lack of industry in the sparsely populated rural parish, the regulatory vacuum created by a dearth of building rules can foment schisms among local leaders and those trying to usher in new business.

It’s a common refrain in the region.

Local leaders in Tangipahoa wrestled in July over how to regulate solar plants, around the same time Livingston Parish became embroiled in a debate over whether a paintball site should be allowed to operate between two homes.

While Johnson insists the gravel company is operating out of turn, records show Modica did file for site approval with the Department of Environmental Quality.

Modica on May 3 submitted a notice of intent to discharge stormwater and wastewater at the site, records show — the first step towards getting a gravel mine approved. That August, after construction had commenced, St. Helena Emergency Director Roderick Matthews filed a complaint with the department, doubling down on Johnson’s accusations that Modica lacked permits.

An inspector arrived to survey the site on Aug. 24, records show. She chided Modica for not having a stormwater permit for construction — something required of mining projects exceeding 5 acres — but let the site stay open provided Modica apply for that permit.

A second, anonymous complaint saying the mine lacked permits yielded another visit from an inspector in September, who again took no action, saying Modica was on the way to applying for the construction permit he needed.

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“Modica is working with the department to get the proper paperwork processed,” Greg Langley, a spokesperson for the department of environmental quality, said on Wednesday.

Citing his compliance with the environmental quality regulator, Modica says he’s doing nothing wrong.

“I’m trying to have a business in the parish, to bring them (gravel) while running a business myself,” he said, “and I’m getting harassed by one police juryman.”

Gravel mining is big business in St. Helena — especially in the southwest corner of the parish near the Amite River and its associated tributaries, where sediment has long been coveted by miners eager to capitalize on subdivision construction to the south of the parish.

But there can be downsides for natural ecosystems near the gravel mines.

Rich agricultural land is often converted to desert-like terrain once a mine comes and goes — part of the reason the industry attracts controversy, said Dr. Sam Hyde, director of the Center for Southeast Louisiana Studies at Southeastern University.

“It gives people jobs and does some good for the economy,” Hyde said, “but it can be devastating for the environment.”

Johnson, the police jury president, wants the company to repair the road. He insists Modica said he would pay for any such repairs; Modica says he made no such promise.

In front of the entrance to the gravel mine, a large quantity of clay fills the large hole the gravel mine’s trucks bore into the asphalt of Nesom Road.

“You could not pass through here,” said Johnson.

Cathy Robertson, James Robertson’s sister-in-law, owns the land where Modica’s company is operating. She now lives in Mississippi and leased the property amid financial struggles that followed her husband’s death, she said.

The problem with the road, she said, is that the parish didn’t spend enough on paving it properly in the spring. If officials are so worried about the trucks’ impacts, they could pass an ordinance enforcing a weight limit for parish roads, Modica added.

Cathy Robertson said Johnson’s upset because he can’t stop her.

“It’s because he can’t fix the road the way it’s supposed to be,” she said. “That road is not properly built."


James Finn writes for The Advocate as a Report For America corps member. Email him at JFinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @RJamesFinn.

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