Local government

Local contractor seeks to reopen shuttered rock quarry north of Ontario

ONTARIO – The Malheur County Planning Commission will once again weigh a move by a local contractor to open a rock quarry that the state ordered shut down last year.
The move by Darren Lee of Ontario is the latest twist in a saga that stretches back to 2021 that pits him against a dozen or so residents who live nearby.
Scenic views are part of the landscape along Jasmine Slope, north of Ontario. Neighbors adjacent to where Lee wants to open the gravel pit have resisted and complained about the proposed project for more than two years.
The commission will consider a conditional-use permit application for the gravel pit by Lee at its meeting on Thursday, Jan. 25. It will be at the county office building at 316 Northeast Goodfellow St. and begins at 7:30 p.m.
The commission will review the application even as Lee remains under a suspension order from the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries to cease mining operations. The state issued the order last March.
Lee initially sought to create the gravel pit on property owned by local farmer Dallas Head off of Mesquite Road in 2021. But the planning commission denied Lee’s request to add the 54-acre gravel pit to the county’s comprehensive land use plan and for a conditional-use permit.
Despite the denial, Lee engaged in work to prepare for a quarry, according to state records.
In August, Lee again applied for county permission to open an 80-acre gravel pit off of Mesquite Road. The county deemed the application incomplete and a revised version was accepted last month.
Since March, Lee has been under a state order to suspend mining operations in the area. The agency notified him that it had “multiple complaints” Lee’s company – 4 Lees Excavation – was mining without a permit.
On March 14, the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries sent Lee a second letter outlining a series of corrective measures required at the mine site including knocking down dirt berms, filling in a new road and refilling test pits “and any other surface disturbance conducted for exploration or in preparation for mining.”
Lee then sought an informal review of the order by the State Geologist Ruarri J. Day-Stirrat. Stirrat informed Lee in a March 31 letter he supported the suspension order.
In April, Lee’s attorney, Brian Sheets of BRS Legal, LLC., asked the state to clarify the requirements for restoration at the Jasmine Road site. The state responded in a June 22 letter that Lee needed to restore the area, including “revegetation with the pre-existing cover crop, and revegetation with native species to a similar density and composition of surrounding vegetation.”
The state extended the deadline for finishing the work to Sept. 30.
But very little of that work was completed, according to at least one landowner in the area and the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries.
The department sought documentation that the restoration work was complete in December. According to Alex Lopez, department spokesperson, neither Sheets or Lee had responded.
“At this time, some work has been completed, however some aspects of reclamation are being challenged by the landowner (Head) and we are working with Mr. Lee via counsel,” said Lopez.
Tina Cassity, who with her husband, lives on Jasmine Road, said the dirt berms around the mining site have been leveled to some extent. Other mitigations outlined by the state have not been completed, said Cassity.
“They have not contoured or reseeded. The road has not been touched and you can still see test holes,” said Cassity.
Cassity said her and her husband did not find out about Lee’s August permit application submittal until recently.
“It’s pretty heartbreaking for us. It’s been a rollercoaster for these past three years. One good thing is we’ve had to educate and fight for ourselves. We didn’t get a lot of real support from the county unfortunately,” said Cassity.
Cassity said Lee’s proposed mining operation is near her home.
“Our front door is approximately 100 feet from his mining activity. Our well is even closer. It is a grave concern to me and my family,” said Cassity.
Head, the owner of the property, lives part-time in Arizona and last week said the gravel project is Lee’s endeavor.
“The ground is useless to me. I’ve been paying property taxes for years and never reaped one dime off of it. I don’t know what threw up all the red flags besides these neighbors,” said Head.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

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