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HELENA - A state audit found that poor file documentation, lack of a formalized permitting process and failure to collect a key tax are just a few of the problems plaguing the state program that regulates gravel pits in Montana.

The state Legislative Audit Division this week released a performance audit of the DEQ's open-cut mining permitting process. The study was initiated late last year at the request of the Legislative Audit Committee.

The report comes in the wake of District Court rulings last month that forced the agency to issue several gravel pit mining permits without the necessary environmental reviews required by state law.

Department officials contend that a lack of resources, combined with booming residential growth, have created what DEQ Director Richard Opper calls "a train wreck" in the open-cut mining program.

"We've got a program that was operating more or less adequately for the past 10 years, until all of the sudden we started experiencing the explosive growth in the western part of the state," Opper told the Great Falls Tribune in a story published Thursday.

According to the performance audit, gravel and sand mines account for more than 92 percent of the 1,787 active open-cut mines in the state.

The audit also says the number of open-cut mining permits issued by the DEQ has grown this decade, jumping from 59 in 2000 to 111 in 2006. However, the number of full-time staff members in the department's open-cut mining program has remained at four during that period.

By law, the department has a maximum of 60 days to issue a permit once it receives a completed application. According to the audit, approximately 90 percent of the pending permit applications exceed the 60-day time limit.

Opper said the increased public interest in gravel pit permits has played a major role in the backlog.

Open-cut mining permits are subject to the Montana Environmental Policy Act, which requires state agencies to conduct environmental reviews of any proposed actions that can affect the environment and solicit public comment on those actions.

"The open-cut program, for decades, was not terribly controversial, so we were used to operating with an absolutely minimum number of public comments," Opper said. "Now we're getting up to 400-plus comments per pit if they happen to be located near an area where people are living, and that takes an enormous amount of staff time."

The department sought additional resources from the Legislature in the 2005 and 2007 sessions to help combat the permitting backlog, but those efforts were defeated, and DEQ officials say staffing resources are the primary reason for the massive backlog in the permitting process.

Jeff Barber, water and mining program director for the Montana Environmental Information Center, said the audit's findings were "amazing."

"I can't believe that the agency seemingly doesn't have any idea what's going on with gravel pits around the state, and doesn't even begin to know how to figure out how to get an idea of what's going on," Barber said. "They don't do inspections. They don't have a process for processing applications. What are they doing?"

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