The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has lengthened its review period by another 60 days for a gravel mining permit application east of Shepherd.
The agency said Tuesday it extended the review period after receiving numerous public comments, both during the public meeting at Shepherd High School and by mail and email, "that revealed substantial issues regarding the permit application.”
The substantial issues outlined in a letter to the mining company, Riverside Contracting of Missoula, include:
"The proposed plan does not adequately protect the quality and quantity of the shallow ground water resources that local residents use for drinking water, domestic needs, and farm operations. Citizens identified that the application does not adequately recognize the presence of ditches, springs, wetlands, and groundwater wells within 1,000 feet of the site.
There also are possible impacts to a neighboring Superfund site near Shepherd School, and the Crooked Creek watershed.
Noise from the pit operation is also a concern.
The DEQ has 60 days from April 26 to do one of three things: issue a letter to the company requiring more information; approve the permit; or extend the review period an additional 30 days, after which the DEQ must either issue a deficiency letter or approve the permit.
The public may continue to comment during the review period.
The decision follows a packed public meeting held April 17 in Shepherd.
A citizens group called “Saving Shepherd” has produced a website outlining concerns ranging from water pollution of Crooked Creek — a tributary to the Yellowstone River — water depletion in the area’s aquifer, noise pollution, light pollution, air pollution and the threat of decreased property values. It also encourages residents to comment to DEQ.
“A lot of our concerns are valid, especially the water table is very high out here,” said Kati Grove, who lives about a half-mile from the proposed pit.
Many of the worries voiced during the meeting related to the possible loss of groundwater for private wells, or contamination of groundwater. At the time of the meeting, DEQ had not seen the contractor’s groundwater study.
Similar concerns arose earlier this year for a gravel pit project west of Billings. In February, Yellowstone County Commissioners approved a zoning change allowing a 117-acre gravel pit proposed by FirstMark Materials near the old Oscar’s Dreamland near the Yellowstone River.
And in 2016 Paradise Valley residents rose in opposition to a 54-acre gravel pit near Emigrant, which was also proposed by Riverside Contracting. That mine was never approved after a buy-sell agreement with the landowner expired.
The 74-acre pit near Shepherd, called Donnes for the landowners Frank and Cindy Donnes where the pit would be located, would include a gravel crusher and asphalt plant. It was proposed to be located just north of the Frey Road/Shepherd East Road intersection.
Frank Donnes said two or three critics of the project have gotten "everybody riled up" by exaggerating the impacts of the pit.
"There's only two people within a quarter-mile of the place and they're ranchers and farmers," he said.
"They're bringing it out to be a lot worse than it is."
Riverside Contracting is one of the largest highway construction businesses in the state, according to its website. The family business, incorporated by Marvin Rehbein in 1981, also does work in Wyoming.
“The majority of Riverside’s work history has been with the Montana Department of Transportation,” according to the company’s website. A call to the company for more information was not returned.
The DEQ’s website says the agency “will issue a permit only if the bond, reclamation plan and other requirements … are fulfilled. The reclamation plan must ensure that the operator will establish vegetative cover commensurate with the proposed land use, will appropriately protect ground and surface water and will remove or bury metal and other waste, etc.”