The Allens Creek rock quarry run by Harrison Construction grows larger with each passing year. It is, after all, the nature of quarries. But as it consumes more and more of the mountainside — growing taller, wider and deeper — its neighbors have grown increasingly leery.
Complaints from nearby residents are varied. Blasts from the quarry rattle windows and make residents fear for the safety of their house’s foundations. Clouds of dust and invisible fine particles are blamed for breathing problems. The near-constant barrage of heavy truck traffic creates a nuisance. And streams have been polluted by the quarry in the past, with documented state water quality violations.
The quarry company owns more than 300 acres at the head of Allens Creek. About half is currently included in its mining boundary. It recently bought eight additional acres on the ridgeline above the quarry and wants to add it to the mining boundary.
The quarry was obligated to inform property owners in its vicinity, prompting several to write letters to state mining officials asking them to deny the application.
“The pure, clean air of the gorgeous Smoky Mountains have been polluted with debris from this mining operation and any further expansion should be immediately denied,” Ralph Dreifus, a who lives near the quarry, wrote in a letter to the state mining permit office. “The major blasting that occurs is so violent that it vibrates my home as well as others in this area.”
The quarry is being “hostile and invasive” by buying up additional property to add to the mining footprint, according to Steve Rosenfelt of Highland Forest, an upscale development bordering the quarry.
Like many, he cited wells that nearby neighbors rely on as their sole source of water.
Wells “are at risk of being either contaminated or degraded by any increase in blasting or disturbance,” Rosenfelt wrote to the state mining permit officials.
There was enough opposition that state mining officials agreed to hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 18, at the historic courthouse in Waynesville.
A needed step
Todd Quigg, president of Harrison Construction at its Tennessee headquarters, said the quarry has been forced to retool its mining strategy after hitting a metamorphic fault during excavations in 2009, when a giant slab of rock sheared off the near vertical rock face of the quarry. The collapse of one section of the towering quarry wall was very nearly catastrophic. It happened just after quitting time and crushed equipment that men had been operating just moments before.
Now, with the discovery of the fault line, the quarry must take a different approach to mining the mountain. Instead of verticle slices, it must use a series of giant stair steps.
“Since 2009, we have learned substantially more about the geology. The more appropriate way to do that is take a 50 foot cut and step out 30 feet,” Quigg said.
The new, more stable approach necessitates adding the additional eight acres at the top of the mine to accommodate for the incremental terracing.
The failure of the quarry wall in 2009 is one concern highlighted by neighbors, however — namely that the mountain will become destabilized as the quarry takes bigger and bigger bites out of it.
“The expansion of this quarry adjoining my property sets the stage for unbelievable calamity,” Dreifus wrote. “This entire area could become uninhabitable and would cause immeasurable financial and emotional loss.”
Quigg pointed out the quarry serves an important economic role in the community. The rock mined there is used to build roads, driveways, parking lots and building pads. If the quarry wasn’t there, crushed rock would have to be trucked in from greater distances, and the cost of construction would be higher.
Quigg said most agree quarries are needed, but that this is a classic case of “not in my backyard.”
It’s not the neighbors’ first rodeo in standing up to the quarry. Last time, they didn’t manage to stop the expansion but did win some concessions, namely in the area of ramped up monitoring.
Outcry from neighbors prompted regulators to take a more active role in environmental oversight of the quarry, including more inspections, which had been limited in years past. The quarry in turn had to step up its compliance.
But Quigg said the quarry genuinely wants to be a good neighbor — as much as possible given that it is, after all, a quarry.
“We took a lot of public comment in 2009. We took that as a learning lesson and have tried to be better neighbors,” Quigg said.
The more neighborly attitude hasn’t gone unnoticed by Michael Rogers, a past opponent of the quarry. Rogers said Harrison has improved water quality, replanted trees, conducted more seismograph readings of its blasts and made a written promise to drill Rogers a new well if the spring he relies on for drinking water dries up.
Still, Rogers opposes any expansion of the mining boundary.
“I am opposed and most likely will be for the rest of my life,” Rogers wrote in a letter to state mining officials.
One problem faced by residents is figuring out exactly what the quarry is up to by adding the additional eight acres on the ridgeline. For now, the quarry has classified the proposed expansion as a “buffer zone,” meaning it wouldn’t be disturbed.
That could change in the future, however.
“The area that is now buffer may become active mine in the future,” Quigg said.
Neighbors said they have been unable to get a clear answer of what the future may hold. If the additional property is needed only as a buffer, why add it to the mining boundary at all? Neighbors fear it could only spell one thing: an eventual expansion of the mining footprint further up the mountainside.
So far, state mining officials tasked with processing the application haven’t asked the quarry for an explanation.
“The state has limited knowledge about the overall and long-lasting scope,” Rosenfelt wrote in a letter to mining officials. As a result, residents have no way to assess the quarry’s proposal — and thus can’t comment in an educated way, he wrote.
Judy Wehner, a state mining specialist in Raleigh handling the application, said she doesn’t know why Harrison would add property to the mining boundary if it is only needed as a buffer.
“You would have to ask them,” Wehner said.
When asked whether she was curious herself, Wehner said the application doesn’t require that information.
“There’s not a spot on the application for it,” she said.
When asked whether the state could still ask Harrison for that information anyway, Wehner said, “I don’t know if we could or we couldn’t. I would have to ask our attorney.”
Wehner did say that Harrison would have to go through another application process if it wanted to shed the buffer status and pursue active mining on the added acreage. But that type of change wouldn’t require the same level of public notification.
“This would essentially grant Harrison Construction carte blanche to mine the expanded area without notification of neighbors,” Donald Raff, a neighbor to the quarry, wrote in a letter to the state.
A public hearing on the latest boundary expansion of the Allens Creek rock quarry will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 18, at the historic courthouse in Waynesville. 919.707.9220.