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Jackie Shuler has lived in the shadow of the Waynesville rock quarry most of her life. But as blasts have grown stronger and the size of the quarry bigger, so has the list of Shuler’s complaints.
“If you were home when they pulled a load, you would think, ‘Good God, are we having an earthquake?’” Shuler said.
Shuler blames the blasting at the quarry for fouling her mother’s well water. Shuler and her mother, who lives next door, are the quarry’s closest neighbors — so close the quarry pays Shuler the courtesy of a warning call before a blast.
Her mother’s well water suddenly became discolored shortly after some earth-jarring blasts from the quarry that Shuler described as the strongest she’s ever felt. Shuler now changes her mother’s filter every 60 days, but the water still leaves rust stains on her mother’s laundry.
Neighbors of the quarry complain of cracked house foundations, incessant dust, breathing problems, erosion and even fear for the stability of the mountainside being carved away by the quarry.
“Everybody has had a problem over the past few years, and everybody is kindly tired of it,” said Ronnie Deweese, 61.
Neighbors who were once resigned to living in the shadow of quarry operations have rallied in recent weeks to fight a proposed expansion. Harrison Construction wants to increase the quarry’s boundary by 13 acres, but not necessarily to mine rock.
A major rockslide occurred at the quarry last year, halting excavation in a main sector of the mining pit until the mountainside is stabilized.
The only way to fix it, according to engineers hired by the quarry, is to lop off the top of ridge above the quarry and recontour the sheer vertical walls where the slide occurred.
Residents liken the plan to a miniature version of mountaintop removal.
“I don’t want them to tear the mountain off. They have done enough damage,” said Deweese. “Look at what our generations of young’uns is going to look at years down the road.”
The quarry’s permit requires visual screening with trees, but the barren, exposed wall of the mining pit reaches hundreds of feet up the mountainside, dwarfing a row of trees planted along the road for aesthetics.
“You cannot replace something that God made,” said Suzanne Hendrix, 62, a neighbor to the quarry.
Meanwhile, Shuler doesn’t fancy the idea of the quarry moving in even closer as it crests the ridge that separates her from the mining pit. The quarry has made a generous offer to buy up her 20 acres, and she’ll likely take it.
“I’m sure if any of the other neighbors were offered what they are offering, they would take it and run, too,” said Shuler, the owner of Bypass.
The quarry has bought or leased several additional parcels of land to make the proposed expansion possible.
Now Michael Rogers is worried about what could happen to his spring as the blasting gets closer. Rogers’ spring, a pure source of water that feeds a 1,000-gallon reservoir used by three families for their drinking water, will be just four feet from the quarry’s new property line if the expansion goes through.
“They could fracture that aquifer and contaminate it,” said Rogers, 57, an electrician.
Groundwater aquifers in the mountains are “complex by nature,” said Ted Campbell, a hydrogeologist with the N.C. Division of Water Quality in Asheville.
Underground veins in the rock splinter and fracture like crooked tree roots. It’s almost impossible to tell if a vein tapped by a well is connected to the blasting zone a quarter mile away, Campbell said.
If the quarry expands, it could negatively impact views from some of the six-figure home sites in Highland Forest, an upscale development at the head of Lickstone — especially over the next 10 years when excavations are actively underway and before the backside of the mountain is revegetated, said Steve Rosenfelt, the director of Highland Forest. But Rosenfelt said his concerns pale in comparison to those of the more immediate neighbors.
“When you see all those folks, some of them with tears in their eyes, it definitely inspires you to become involved,” Rosenfelt said.
State inspectors with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources are tasked with oversight of quarry operations. They are supposed to make surprise routine inspections to check compliance with numerous environmental regulations.
“I think typically it is annual,” said Janet Boyer, regional land quality supervisor based in Asheville.
However, a review of inspection reports dating back to 2005 show that the quarry went three and half years without a single inspection — from April 2005 to August 2008.
Boyer attributed the large gap in inspections to being short-staffed.
“We went through a very low staffing period,” Boyer said.
Some residents are surprised by the lack of oversight, but others say it’s par for the course.
“A big corporation like that, they can absolutely do what they want to,” Shuler said.
Residents claim whenever it rains hard, Allens Creek flowing past the mine turns chocolate brown with mud running off the quarry.
State inspectors routinely instruct the quarry to shore up erosion control efforts nearly every time they visit the site, according to inspection reports. However, inspectors fail to make a follow-up inspection to see whether the proper steps were taken.
Boyer said that isn’t unusual, however, given stretched staffing of her division.
“They usually list minor things on every inspection they do,” Boyer said, and they don’t always warrant a follow up.
By contrast, follow-up visits are customary for local inspectors with the Haywood County erosion control program. The quarry is exempt by the state from Haywood County’s erosion regulations, however. The upshot: a residential contractor building a house faces tougher oversight than a major quarry operation blasting away part of a mountain.
Furthermore, state inspectors have failed to visit the quarry during an actual rainstorm. State inspectors take stock of the quarry’s erosion control practices in theory, but haven’t actually witnessed what happens when it rains.
So residents have taken it upon themselves to document the erosion, photographing Allens Creek upstream and downstream of the quarry to show the stark difference in water quality.
Blasting is one of the biggest complaints by neighbors of the quarry.
“It will rattle the dishes in their cupboard. We’ve had picture frames fall off and everything else,” said Michael Rogers.
But Judy Wehner, assistant state mining specialist, said that alone doesn’t mean anything.
“They might have a picture falling off their wall if a truck goes by or a clap of thunder hits,” Wehner said. “Houses rattle.”
A few neighbors claim their foundations or basement walls have cracked due to the blasting, but again Wehner isn’t so sure.
“I can count on one hand any damages directly attributed to blasting,” Wehner said.
Blast strength is regulated by the state, which defers to federal limits designed for mountaintop removal coal mining. Wehner said those limits are stringent enough to guard against property damage.
The quarry is required to keep seismographic records of all its blasts. If a blast exceeds the allowable limit, quarry operators are supposed to report it to the state. But otherwise, the seismographic readings and blasting records are never seen by regulators unless they get a complaint.
For years, residents have complained directly to the quarry about the strength of the blasts, unaware there was a mining agency in Raleigh they should have been directing their grievances to.
As a result, the state went years without laying eyes on the blasting records for the Allens Creek quarry.
Now, in response to properly directed complaints, Wehner asked the quarry for two months of records. Neighbors would like to see far more than that reviewed, as they don’t trust the quarry to voluntarily report a blasting violation if they have one.
But Wehner said her office doesn’t have the manpower to go review more than that, given the number of quarries it oversees.
Wehner says the Waynesville quarry is in compliance based on the two months of blasting data she’s seen — and the fact the quarry has never self-reported a violation. Wehner said the quarry would never cover up a violation as the penalty for doing so is too great a risk. Furthermore, the quarry has been far, far below the allowed blast strength based on the readings she’s seen. The quarry won’t use more dynamite than it needs to since it costs more money to do so.
“As a good neighbor, we are well, well, well below the level for allowed blasts,” said Don Mason, who’s in charge of environmental compliance for the Harrison quarry.
Due to repeated complaints from one neighbor, the quarry hired a contractor recently to install a second seismograph on her property.
Since seismograph readings are only reviewed by the state when there’s a complaint, neighbors now complain every time there is a blast. Quarry neighbor Michael Rogers said mining regulators in Raleigh aren’t too happy about his wife’s repeated calls.
“They said ‘You people do not need to call down here every time they blast,’” Rogers recounted.
Rogers’ wife countered that she would continue to call as often as she wanted and they may as well get on a first-name basis.
Since Wehner can expect a complaint with every blast these days, she gave the quarry a standing order to send her every seismograph reading to save her the trouble of calling and asking for it each time.
The state could set a tougher limit for blasting rather than deferring to the federal threshold for mountaintop removal coal mining. Individual quarries, such as those in closer proximity to neighbors, could be held to more rigorous standards if stipulated in the state’s permit.
“In the instance where people have had problems, we have put limits in their permit,” Wehner said.
Blasting also spews giant dust plumes into the air, which then drift and settle on neighbors’ homes. Even when the quarry isn’t blasting, there is a pervasive dust that settles over everything, according to Hendrix.
“We leave our doors and windows shut almost 24-7,” Hendricks said. “You can dig in the dirt in our yard and it is full of mica dust.”
Some quarry neighbors claim the dust is causing pulmonary problems.
State air quality regulators inspect the quarry unannounced annually and have never witnessed a violation, according to Angela Hopper, an environmental specialist with the state Division of Air Quality in Asheville.
Inspectors mostly look for dust being kicked up by equipment on the roads and by rock crushers. A water spray is continuously trained on the crushing site to keep dust down, and a water truck is supposed to spray the roads.
When it comes to blasting, however, there are no state regulations to control the dust that’s emitted.
“We do not have any rules in air quality that specifically talk about controlling dust from blasting,” said Paul Muller, regional supervisor for the Division of Air Quality.
While there is a federal standard for fine particles in the air, it is measured over a 24-hour period.
“Rarely would one plume of dust be able to cause a problem with a 24-hour standard,” Muller said. “I’m not saying short term couldn’t have implications, but we don’t have any standards.”
It is possible that fine particle dust could blow off the high, towering exposed walls of rock at the quarry — known as “fugitive dust.” Fugitive dust from quarries is supposedly regulated, but air quality inspectors say they have never noticed it.
Fine particle matter isn’t necessarily visible to the naked eye, however and can only be measured with air quality monitors. Muller doesn’t have a portable air quality monitor that could be set up at the site.
Air pollution is one of the six criteria that the state could use to deny the quarry’s permit. But lacking an objective way to measure fine particles in the air around the quarry, neighbors are left making unsubstantiated and anecdotal claims.
There is one case study Muller can point to, however. In Spruce Pine, where several quarries are concentrated, a woman complained incessantly about dust from the operations. Muller set up air monitoring equipment in her yard for several years, but it never measured a violation.
Mason, the quarry’s own environmental compliance employee, said dust mostly stays on site when blasting and any drift is minimal.
Opponents are ready for a showdown at a public hearing over the quarry’s expansion slated for Wednesday night. They have been meeting weekly for two months to organize and plot strategy. Meetings have consistently numbered 60 people or more.
“When you have somebody that works all day long, they come home tired, but if they are willing to come out to a meeting, they are concerned,” Hendrix said.
While organizing has grown immensely easier in the age of email, many of those neighboring the quarry in the Allens Creek and Lickstone communities don’t use it, forcing residents to mount their opposition the old-fashioned way.
“It was word of mouth from one concerned person to another. Every time I talk to someone I say bring a friend or neighbor so they become aware,” Hendrix said.
Residents have gotten a few pointers from pros along the way. A regional environmental group called Western North Carolina Alliance has rallied to the cause. The issue is right up its alley.
“We empower people to work on environmental issues that are happening in their own backyards,” said Ryan Griffith, community outreach manager with WNC Alliance.
Griffith said the residents were surprisingly motivated and organized already, but navigating the bureaucracy behind environmental permits can be tricky, even for advocates who do it for a living.
“When you have several different layers of regulations, it is hard to figure out what you are supposed to do,” Griffith said.
WNC Alliance had a few minor tips, like organizing into committees to carry out assignments between meetings.
Griffith’s top priority is to keep the residents on message and shape years of pent-up anger toward the quarry into an effective argument.
The state won’t deny the permit because blasts rattle windows or the scarred mountainside looks ugly. To halt the quarry in its tracks, opponents must hone in on one of six criteria that are grounds for denying the permit, Griffith said.
Air quality, water quality, health problems, public safety, physical damage to homes — these are the areas where residents have learned to target their arguments.
“We knew when we got to that hearing, we had to stay focused,” Hendrix said.
Residents even planned a rehearsal to go over their comments on the eve of the public hearing.
“I wasn’t cut out to be a public speaker, but I am getting pretty used it,” said Rogers, who’s become one of the de facto spokespeople for the neighborhood.
Residents may be at a disadvantage when it comes to proving their case, however. They have no air quality data to trot out. Inspectors have never witnessed the erosion or taken well water samples. They can’t prove the cracks in their basements are a result of the blasting.
Their complaints are mostly circumstantial, and it is unclear what steps, if any, the state environmental regulators will take to verify the neighbors’ anecdotal claims.
“It is always somebody’s word against somebody else’s word,” Wehner said.
The burden, it appears, will fall on the neighbors to prove their case — a process that may end up at the appeal level.
The state has only 30 days from the public hearing to issue some kind of decision. The state can approve or deny the permit, or ask the quarry for more information.
If either side disagrees with the decision, they can appeal it to the state Office of Administrative Hearings. Successful appeals usually have a lawyer and are put on much like a court trial.
The quarry can get to work right away if the permit is approved unless opponents go to the court and ask for work to be halted while an appeal is settled. But in doing so, opponents may be asked to put up a bond to cover losses the quarry suffers while the appeal plays out, to be paid only in the event the quarry prevails.
Mason and Wehner have questioned the sudden rash of complaints given the long life of the mine dating back to the 1960s.
“I don’t want to say that anybody’s concerns are not legitimate,” Mason said. At the same time, he doesn’t understand why “now all of a sudden it is a problem.”
Wehner said the neighbors never complained about the operations until the quarry applied for its latest permit, even though the permit two years ago was for a much larger expansion.
But opponents beg to differ. They have been complaining — just to the wrong people.
“We always just called down to Harrison quarry,” said Rogers. “We didn’t know we were supposed to be calling DENR all this time. Then there would be a record for it.”
Deweese often called the quarry directly, but it took a while before he realized he wasn’t getting anywhere.
“When we would call over there and complain whoever we talked to just kindly dusted us off,” Deweese said. “We didn’t know where to call.”
The failure by residents to protest until now shouldn’t be used against them, said Griffith.
“This was sort of the straw that broke the camels’ back,” Griffith said. “It is sad because the neighbors have been such good neighbors to the quarry for so long, but they haven’t really reciprocated that.”
Deweese said the quarry has gotten worse compared to 20 years ago.
“You might hear a boom now and then, but as far as shaking the house, it never did do it,” Deweese said. “Then the bigger they got, they would shake our houses and then problems starting happening. Everybody is kindly fed up with it.”
Deweese hopes they have the state’s attention now.
“I hope a lot of people take notice of this and step in,” Deweese said. “I want DENR and other people to watch them more closely on air quality, water pollution, the sediment runoff.”
Deweese said he thinks the community will stick with the fight.
“It is a big outfit, and they got a lot of money, and it’s hard to fight money,” Deweese said. But, “I don’t think we are going to get tired and give out. Not if they are going to keep tearing our mountains down. The way I look at it, God ain’t makin’ us no more mountains.”
Coming next week
Check out next week’s edition to learn more about slope issues at the quarry, including a large rockslide last year and the controversy surrounding plans to stabilize it. Plus, read coverage of the public hearing.
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