Wresting huge chunks of granite from a hillside is inherently dangerous work, but the safety training provided at one Waynesville quarry has seeped out from behind the stonewalls to benefit area citizens.
Neighbors near a towering rock quarry in Waynesville have voiced concerns over a proposed expansion that could cause excavations to creep ever closer to their homes.
The state has delayed issuing a necessary permit and instead is asking Harrison Construction to provide a slew of additional information to ensure the expansion won’t create an environmental hazard or safety risk.
“They need to be more responsible. We felt that and we proved that,” said Suzanne Hendrix, one of dozens of neighbors who organized against the quarry. “It took a big effort on everyone’s part.”
From the impacts of blasting on drinking wells to the stability of its massive rock walls, the quarry must address a laundry list of concerns before the N.C. Division of Land Resources will entertain the expansion permit.
The quarry received a letter from the state in late June requesting additional information and has 180 days to reply. Judy Wehner, assistant state mining specialist, said she has no indication from the quarry when it might respond. The quarry did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment.
Neighbors of the quarry are optimistic, but also skeptical.
“Their track record isn’t good,” said Polly Leatherwood, 69, who has lived near the quarry her whole life. “If they do what they are supposed to, it would be fine.”
But state environmental inspectors visit too infrequently —with a lapses spanning more than two years by some agencies and four years by others — and aren’t diligent enough when they do, according to neighbors.
“They need to follow up on them and see they do what they say they are going to do. That’s the biggest thing,” said Leatherwood.
Ronnie Deweese agreed the state’s request for additional information won’t work unless regulatory oversight is ramped up going forward.
“They can provide all the information they want, but if they don’t have an inspection every so often it won’t do no good,” said Deweese, who lives near the quarry.
The biggest issue the quarry must address is the stability of the quarry walls, which tower hundreds of feet in the air. Last year, a slab of rock hundreds of feet wide and tall came crashing down at the quarry. The potentially fatal slide could have been prevented had the quarry practiced more careful geotechnical monitoring, according to geologists and mine inspectors that visited the site in the aftermath.
But there are no state or federal engineering standards that apply to quarries, nor do state or federal agencies oversee the blasting and excavation plans. There are no rules limiting how steep or tall quarry walls can be.
In the new permit, however, the state took the quarry to task over its plans to stabilize and shore up the slide area.
Plans submitted by the quarry “contained insufficient information to assess the stability of rock soils and slopes,” according to the state’s letter. The quarry must provide more detailed engineering plans and slope assessments before the permit can proceed.
Quarries generally are not required to hire geotechnical engineers to monitor their operations, yet in this case, the state wants to see a slope expert on hand throughout the slide cleanup.
“Unexpected planes of weakness in the bedrock or other unexpected conditions may be discovered as work progresses,” the letter states.
Rick Wooten, a state geologist and mountain landslide expert based in Asheville, provided the engineering critique of the quarry’s plans on behalf of the state mining agency. Opinions of state geologists are not typically sought by the agency that grants quarry permits.
Wooten also pointed out that the rock being mined is not in fact pure granite, as claimed by the quarry in its permit. Wooten said the “metamorphized sedimentary and igneous rock in the pit is much more structurally complex,” which affects how it behaves.
In order to shore up the slide that destabilized a major part of the quarry, quarry officials say they must expand the current boundaries of the quarry. Their plans call for recontouring the sheer vertical walls of the quarry with a more gentle grade. To do so, they say it is necessary to shave off the ridgeline above the quarry.
The expansion would bring operations closer to the doorstep of the Lickstone community, prompting the opposition.
The state found the quarry’s application wasn’t thorough enough in some areas. The state deemed the sediment and erosion control plan insufficient to control runoff, for example.
Following complaints by neighbors about blasting, the state wants to see a blasting analysis and detailed monitoring plan by a qualified blasting expert — something it had not asked for before.
The state also alerted the quarry that it may be required to install an air quality monitor at the site to measure dust particles, which have been a chief source of complaints. Such a monitor has been required at a quarry site in Spruce Pine similarly accused by neighbors of excessive dust.
“If they set up a monitoring device, we would feel better about it,” Rogers said. “We would know then how much dust is getting transferred onto us. Right now it is hearsay. It is our word against them.”
The state also acted on concerns from neighbors who fear blasting could disrupt the flow of their springs or wells as the quarry inches closer to their homes. The quarry was asked to “provide proof” that the expansion of the quarry wouldn’t harms the springs and wells.
But Michael Rogers doesn’t know how they could provide that kind of assurance.
“It is a fragile system really,” Roger said. Aquifers in the mountains are notoriously hard to read, with veins of water running through the rocks like a maze. A jarring blasting could cause one of the veins to collapse and cut off a spring or well’s flow, Rogers said. Rogers said he wants something in writing from, the quarry that they will dig him a new well if his spring is disrupted.
At least two of the quarry’s neighbors believe that blasting compromised their wells. One suffers from discolored water that stains her laundry. Another had her well suddenly go dry following a week of blasting. Polly Leatherwood said her well didn’t diminish in volume slowly, but just went dry all of a sudden “like you turned the water off.”
Leatherwood called the quarry, and someone came to see her but told her she would have to prove it was their fault.
The state also sent the quarry back to the drawing board on safety fencing around the top of the quarry walls. A fencing plan was required as part of the original application, but the quarry asserted it was unnecessary.
“The heavily wooded, surrounding mountain makes inadvertent public access to the highwall area unlikely,” the quarry wrote.
The state apparently wasn’t satisfied. It has reiterated the need for fencing and told the quarry to draw up a plan.
A high school freshman, Hannah Parrott of Waynesville, had raised this issue during a public hearing on the quarry’s permit, pointing out the threat the unfenced highwalls pose to animals.
A couple of the state’s critques were a result of typos in the quarry’s application, like failing to put north arrows on its maps or listing different numbers for how many acres will be impacted with the expansion.
Deweese said it will likely be up to the neighbors of the quarry to keep the pressure on.
“We’re going to have to make them stay the way they ought to be because they have had the run of things so long,” Deweese said.
The Harrison Construction rock quarry, which mines rock used in road building, was issued a notice of violation on July 8 from the N.C. Division of Water Quality. The violations carry the potential for hefty fines, but if problems are fixed immediately, fines usually aren’t imposed.
The quarry has been in the limelight over the past three months due to a controversial expansion plan. Neighbors fed up with the quarry’s practices had complained to state officials about mud running off the quarry and into the creek, and even documented it themselves in photographs.
Neighbors’ action prompted the first water quality inspection of the site in more than four years, which resulted in the violations. Creek samples taken upstream of the quarry were pristine compared to immediately downstream where sediment levels were 100 times higher than what’s allowed under state standards.
Sediment-laden rainwater was running off three areas of the quarry and into Allens Creek unchecked, according to the inspection report. While the quarry had erosion safeguards elsewhere on site, three areas lacked such measures. Runoff from quarry walls, dirt roads, crushing operations and even the asphalt waste pile flowed off the site and into the creek without first passing through erosion check points, according to the report.
The quarry should have noticed the problem itself and alerted state water quality officials. Failing to do so was among six violations the quarry was cited for.
“If they see a bunch of turbid water blowing out, we expect them to let us know they are having issues and what they are doing to fix it,” said Linda Wiggs, a state water quality official in Asheville. “We don’t want to hear it from someone else.”
Wiggs was among a team of four people who inspected the quarry site on June 26. Their official report from the inspection was made public last week. The quarry has until July 26 to explain why turbidity standards were violated and why the Division of Water Quality hadn’t been notified.
Harrison officials did not respond to several phone calls and emails requesting comment for this article.
As a result of the violation, the quarry will have to take water samples in Allens Creek on a monthly basis and send them to state water quality officials until further notice. Normally, the quarry would only have to sample the creek twice a year.
The quarry was also cited for failing to keep proper erosion records. The quarry is supposed to monitor how well its sediment safeguards are working in weekly inspections and keep a log of erosion maintenance.
For example, earthen dams that slow down rainwater and trap sediment before it reaches the creek can quickly become backlogged and must be cleaned out regularly — something that should be noted in the quarry’s log book.
Another technique is to divert muddy water into giant retaining ponds where sediment settles to the bottom. The ponds, too, have to be dug out to maintain the holding capacity.
The quarry’s maintenance logs were inadequate, however.
“They were generalizing a lot of their erosion control inspections. I told them they needed to be more specific,” Wiggs said.
As part of its self-policing, the quarry is supposed to assess its erosion safeguards within 24 hours of a rainfall of half an inch or more, per state water quality standards. But the quarry’s environmental compliance manager splits his time between seven rock quarries — one in each of the seven western counties. Wiggs said that it’s too big a job for one person in the report.
“If they think they can be compliant with one guy running around to that many areas, that’s fine, but we felt like ‘Well, let’s get some other folks doing this,’” Wiggs said.
The inspection report warned that failing to monitor runoff “because personnel are not available during a discharge event is not an acceptable practice.”
Fixing the problem
The quarry must now figure out what new erosion safeguards are needed to stop the unchecked runoff — but also exactly where all the water is coming from, Wiggs said.
Quarry workers told Wiggs they didn’t realize muddy water was escaping from the site without first passing through erosion checkpoints. Quarry workers told Wiggs they thought the water running off the site was clean groundwater seeping out of the excavated pit.
Quarries inevitably hit the groundwater table, and pools of water form in the pits. Quarry workers told Wiggs they thought the pools were merely overflowing, and therefore, they weren’t paying attention to it.
In reality, the runoff from the quarry’s bare slopes and water used to spray down crushing operations — both laden with sediment — were mingling with the pit water, Wiggs said.
“It is recommended a thorough evaluation of this entire drainage take place,” the report states.
The quarry must have a sediment and erosion control plan on file with the state as part of its mining permit. That plan was inadequate, however, as it shows only two locations where runoff leaves the quarry when in reality there are five, Wiggs said.
State mining inspectors had consistently deemed the quarry “in compliance” with its sediment and erosion control plan, without noticing that the plan itself was inaccurate. Jamie Kritzer, public information officer, said mining inspectors focused on whether the quarry was “meeting the conditions of its state mining permit,” and not necessarily the larger issue of storm water runoff.
Wiggs said the sediment and erosion control plan needs to be updated.
“Mines move land. Things shift,” Wiggs said.
Indeed, when the quarry sliced open a new part of the mountainside as part of a major pit expansion in 2008, it apparently created new routes for runoff.
Further exacerbating the issue, a massive rockslide in 2009 reduced a section of the quarry wall to rubble — a loose pile of dirt and rock that is hundreds of feet wide and tall. Rain running off the slide section is contributing to sediment issues, Wiggs said.
Harrison did not waste any time getting to work. Even before the official violation notice arrived in the mail, a team of dozers and dump trucks could be seen at the quarry site shoring up erosion measures day in and day out.
Finding the sweet spot in government regulation, like on a wooden baseball bat, is often difficult. It’s the place where people are protected from the inherent dangers that go hand in hand with many large industrial enterprises while those same businesses are able to make a healthy profit that provides benefits to individuals, local communities and the government to whom it pays taxes. Finding a balance between these often competing interests is challenging.
In fact, in many cases it is left to the business itself to do the right thing. Often owners are so conscientious of their responsibilities there are not any problems. Sometimes those owners are more interested in profit than the safety of their workers or the environment. Other times, human error turns good intentions into unintended — and sometimes catastrophic — results.
The last few months has left many residents in the Allens Creek community of Waynesville wondering if the proper balance has been found between government regulations and free enterprise. The Allens Creek rock quarry owned by Harrison Construction wants to expand operations and is seeking state approval to do so. Residents complaints on several fronts — dust, explosions, the size of the quarry, and sediment runoff — have led to revelations that neither the state nor the federal government is doing a thorough job keeping tabs on the quarry. State officials say their manpower is stretched thin and that they are doing as good a job as possible with the resources they have.
Many people look at a company like Harrison and try to put them in the same league with larger corporate bad guys. That’s a mistake that doesn’t do any good. It’s important that we look at this quarry as an individual entity that is trying to operate within the parameters set forth by state and federal laws.
The real problem is that state regulators aren’t looking out for the well being of those who live near this quarry. It appears from this newspaper’s investigations that the agencies charged with making sure the quarry stays in compliance with state regulations may not be doing a good job. In some cases existing regulations are not strict enough or don’t exist. More than ever, citizens in the Allens Creek community and elsewhere are dependent on regulators and inspectors to look out for their interests.
As this recession lingers, declining tax revenues are forcing the state to take drastic budget measures. There’s little chance more “bureaucrats,” i.e., government regulators and inspectors, will be hired. That’s an unfortunate situation, one that will make fixing this situation more difficult.
Some in the Allens Creek community may wish this quarry did not exist or that it would close. Not us. What we want is for it to be held to the highest standards for operations of its kind. Until that happens, neighbors have every right to keep making noise.
Water pollution stemming from a Waynesville rock quarry is 100 times higher than that allowed under state standards, according to recent creek sampling by a state water quality specialist.
Silt running off the Harrison Construction rock quarry into nearby Allens Creek during rainstorms is evident to the naked eye.
“It looks like buttermilk after a good hard rain,” said Charles Miller, who lives along Allens Creek downstream of the quarry.
Miller says it is nothing new. But until last week, state water quality inspectors had not visited the quarry since 2006 — despite renewing the quarry’s five-year water quality permit earlier this year.
Water samples taken immediately upstream and downstream of the rock quarry during a recent rainstorm show a huge spike in turbidity levels that far exceed the state’s standard (see chart).
Neighbors of the quarry have complained loudly about the volume of mud pouring into Allens Creek as part of a larger fight against expansion of the quarry, prompting the action from environmental agencies.
Downstream neighbors of the quarry deserve credit for shedding light on water quality problems, said Eric Romaniszyn, director of the non-profit Haywood Waterways Association.
“It takes a small group, mostly people who live in an area, to speak up,” Romaniszyn said.
Michael Rogers, who lives in the shadow of the quarry, photographed Allens Creek upstream and downstream of the quarry following rainstorms and submitted the visible evidence of excessive erosion to the state mining bureau in Raleigh, which controls the quarry’s permit.
That alone did not spur a site visit by inspectors, however. Instead, residents convinced a water quality specialist coordinating an ecological restoration of Richland Creek — a major stream that courses through Waynesville — to capture the water samples. Since pollution in Allens Creek eventually ends up in Richland Creek, Ed Williams told residents near the quarry to call him the next time it rained.
Williams is not technically an inspector, but works under the N.C. Division of Water Quality regional office in Asheville. He promptly shared his results with rest of his office, and that in turn triggered an official inspection the following week.
“When we saw those results, we wanted to find out what is happening,” said Roger Edwards, the regional supervisor for the Division of Water Quality out of Asheville. “There may be issues out there.”
The official inspection report will not be available for another week.
Edwards does not believe the erosion from the quarry could sideline the expansion permit. The quarry can shore up its erosion safeguards — indeed it will be required to if violations are noted, Edwards said — negating any long-term impacts.
Doing their best
Edwards said it can be a challenge to manage erosion at quarries.
“The more vegetation you remove, the more you increase your stormwater runoff, and the more impacts it is going to have,” Edwards said.
And quarries, by nature, have little vegetation. The Allens Creek quarry is permited to disturb up to 137 acres. Roughly half that acreage is the mining pit itself, while the other half is stockpiles, the crushing yard, roads and the like.
Ditches are supposed to funnel mud-laden rainwater running off the quarry’s bare slopes into retention ponds. When working correctly, the silt settles to the bottom of the ponds and clean water continues on through a storm drain to the creek.
But inspectors can’t always tell just by looking whether the erosion safeguards are doing their job.
“You have to be out there during a rainfall event, and you have to sample, and realistically, you have to get more than one sample,” Edwards said.
But the Division of Water Quality doesn’t have the staff to inspect every site under its purview in the course of a calendar year — let alone when it is raining. Edwards said his staff of 12 is in charge of 800 permits spanning 19 counties.
Edwards said inspectors aim to visit every site once during the span of the permit — in the case of the quarry, that’s once every five years. Even then, it may be on a sunny day and typically does not entail water sampling.
“It is a staffing issue and workload management issue,” Edwards said.
Edwards said the frequency of inspections at a site is based in part on its history. But when inspections are few and far between, violations can go unnoticed. The site stays off the offender list, reinforcing the less-frequent inspection schedule.
Quarries are supposed to conduct their own creek sampling twice a year and keep a log of erosion control efforts. Quarry managers are supposed to notify water quality inspectors anytime sediment is visibly seen running off the site into a creek, according to the terms of their water quality permit.
Haywood Waterways Association collects samples from Allens Creek monthly as part of its countywide water quality observations. Turbidity has been well within state standards, although the samples are taken a couple of miles downstream from the quarry and on days when it hasn’t necessarily been raining.
While data shows the creek looks good under normal conditions, even a temporary spike in turbidity on a short section of stream qualifies as a violation.
The quarry has three state permits with three separate state agencies: water quality, air quality and land quality. All three fall under the larger umbrella of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
“There is overlap from agency to agency,” Rogers said.
However, inspectors with the land quality division — who monitor compliance with the quarry’s main mining permit and erosion control plan — went 3.5 years without doing an inspection, from 2005 to 2008.
Their counterparts in the water quality division went four years without visiting the site, from 2006 until last week.
Inspectors with land quality told the quarry it needed to take “corrective action” with certain erosion safeguards three times from 2008 and 2009, according to inspection reports. However, there were no specific follow-up visits to see that corrections were made.
Complaints from neighbors fighting the quarry expansion prompted three inspections by the land quality division in the past three months alone. The inspector, Shawna Riddle, was called out specifically due to complaints of sediment in the stream, but she ruled the quarry was in compliance with its sediment and erosion control plan and found no violations.
“Site was in compliance. All discharge points inspected and no violations noted,” Riddle wrote in an inspection report dated June 7.
But nine days later, water samples taken from Allens Creek portrayed a different reality.
Edwards, who works in the same office as Riddle but on the water quality side, could not explain the incongruous reports: one by land quality showing no violations, and another by water quality nine days later documenting excessive turbidity.
At a public hearing on the rock quarry expansion two weeks ago, quarry workers accused opponents of trying to shut operations down.
“They just think it is unsightly, and they want to get rid of it,” said Michael Mathis. “It was here before they were here, and it will be here when they are gone unless they make it too tough. If it does close, it doesn’t bother them — they will all be happy, slapping each other on the back up there.”
Neighbors say that’s not their motive.
“I don’t want to shut them down. I just want them to go by the law,” Miller said.
A packed public hearing last week over a Waynesville rock quarry pitted neighbors opposing an expansion of the mine against its workers.
The Allens Creek quarry mines granite, which is used in road building and is the primary raw material in asphalt and concrete. The quarry plays a vital role in the local economy — both as a supplier for the construction industry and provider of jobs, said Todd Quigg, president of Harrison Construction, which operates the quarry.
Quarry supporters wearing crisp, clean ball caps boasting their affiliation with Harrison Construction comprised a large block of the audience.
“Harrison puts food on a lot of people’s tables. We need to do everything we can to support them,” said Walter Moody, a truck driver who hauls rock from the quarry.
Opponents to the quarry expansion outnumbered those speaking in its favor, however. One after another came forward to testify that incessant mica dust is causing respiratory problems in children and old people living nearby.
“It’s not like we want to stop Harrison Construction completely, but we just want to make our lives better so we can breathe,” said Christi Thompson, whose seen a correlation in increased quarry activity and her son’s use of an inhaler and nebulizer.
Polly Leatherwood, who likes to drink coffee on her porch in the morning, held up a bag of dust and submitted it as evidence to the hearing officer.
“This is what I have to clean up every morning before I can sit down,” said Leatherwood. “This dust comes down from above. One day it looked like a snowstorm, only it was brown.”
Sherri Inman, the wife of a quarry worker who grew up nearby and still lives there today, had a different story, however.
“I can say with all certainty me nor my family has ever had any health issues due to living one-half mile from the rock quarry,” Inman said. Her dishes have never rattled from the blasting, she isn’t plagued by dust, and her children play outside without breathing problems.
Opponents had been preparing for the hearing for weeks. Their talks were riddled with chapter and verse references to the state statutes that govern quarry permits. A few speakers set up easels to display large photographs documenting dust plumes, silted waterways and even a map showing high incidents of cancer. They directed the audience’s attention to “exhibit A, B or C” as they spoke.
Kenneth Taylor, the head of the N.C. Geological Survey who conducted the hearing, said speakers at public hearings everywhere have grown increasingly savvy in their presentations over the past five years, and the Waynesville crowd was no exception.
“They were ready. They had their game on,” Taylor said.
A Waynesville rock quarry where a major slide occurred last year was operating without rules governing the stability or safety of its massive walls, which tower hundreds of feet in the air.
There are no state or federal engineering standards that apply to quarries, nor do state or federal agencies oversee the excavation plans. Quarry operators are free to blast and excavate the mountainside, unburdened by slope rules — unlike average developers who are regulated by local ordinances and engineering standards for building on steep slopes.
“We don’t have slope stability analysis on (quarry) high walls as a general rule,” said Judy Wehner, assistant state mining specialist with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
There are no rules limiting how steep or tall quarry walls can be. A quarry could go years without a geotechnical expert or engineer even laying eyes on the rock face, as far as state and federal standards are concerned.
If such rules were in place, however, the massive and potentially fatal slide last year could have been prevented — as could future slides — according to state and federal inspectors who visited the Waynesville quarry following the accident.
In March 2009, a massive section of rock broke off the quarry wall and buried a drilling rig 300 feet below. Luckily, the slide happened at 5 p.m., and the workers operating the drill had knocked off for the day just 10 minutes earlier or they would have been killed.
The slab of rock was more than 500 feet long and 200 feet high — weighing an estimated 350,000 tons and rivaling the size of the massive slide that occurred in October 2009 on Interstate 40. Blasting on the quarry wall had taken place five hours earlier.
The slide got the attention of federal mine inspectors with the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which cited the quarry for “moderate” negligence.
“The mine operator failed to have a mining method in place to maintain the stability of the wall, bank, slope where people work or travel in performing their assigned tasks,” the federal citation stated.
Quarry managers balked at the citation, according to federal inspection reports.
“Mine operator thought that the citation was bullshit, and said that MSHA was only there to write citations and not to help the operator,” inspectors wrote in a report summarizing a meeting held with quarry managers following the slide.
The quarry, operated by Harrison Construction, has recently come under fire from the surrounding community for expansion plans. The proposed expansion is a direct result of the slide. A large portion of the mining pit is off-limits until the slide can be stabilized and repaired, and the quarry is eager to resume work in that section.
The towering, sheer-vertical walls where the slide occurred must be recontoured with a more gentle incline and a series of benches or terraced steps. To do so, the quarry says it must shave off the top of the mountain to achieve the proper slope.
Neighbors fighting the expansion are mad that the whole community will suffer due to the quarry’s mistake.
“No doubt they have problems over there, but they brought it on themselves,” said Michael Rogers, who lives in the shadow of the ridge the quarry hopes to level off.
The quarry walls rises more than 800 feet from the floor of the mine at their highest point.
“My question is why didn’t they bench it to start with?” asked Ronnie Deweese, another neighbor opposed to the expansion.
However, there were no regulations requiring the quarry to do so. When excavating a mountainside, benches — a series of flat steps or terraces — are often used to break up the vertical rise. The quarry indeed had benches, but not enough, according to post-accident assessments.
The interval or width of benches it isn’t something the state mandates.
“We don’t like to see anything over 50 feet without a bench, but that is just a rule of thumb. There is no rule. We don’t have any rules,” Wehner said.
Quarries must provide drawings and maps when applying for a permit, denoting the slope of the walls and location of benches. But the schematics show what the pit will look like when the mining is complete — not the incremental steps of blasting and excavating to reach that point over the course of many years.
Residential contractors building on steep slopes in Haywood and Jackson counties must hire a certified engineer to design slope stability plans. The local ordinances also spell out criteria for building on steep slopes.
The state does neither when it comes to quarries. That said, state mining officials may choose to insert engineering requirements into a quarry’s permit.
“If we feel like a slope stability analysis needs to be done, then we ask for it,” Wehner said. “We can condition the permit anyway we feel we need to. It depends.”
Wehner could not say how often the state actually does so, however. There were no engineering mandates pertaining to the quarry walls in the 2008 permit the Waynesville quarry was operating under at the time of the slide.
What went wrong
Drillers at the quarry were interviewed by federal inspectors following the slide, and all of them said the wall had shown no signs of trouble. One of the drillers working below the wall minutes before the collapse stated: “the wall looked very good and saw nothing to indicate that there was a problem.” The drillers’ names were redacted from the accident report when it was released as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.
However, geologists or geotechnical engineers — as opposed to rank-and-file quarry workers — may have been able to detect the disaster before it was too late.
“I think the key is having the right people looking at it that are trained to notice those thing as the quarry develops,” said Rick Wooten, senior geologist with the N.C. Geological Survey. “It makes sense to have someone on hand that knows how to recognize or evaluate those things.”
Blasting and excavations by the quarry had exposed a plane of weakness in the mountain, said Wooten, who investigated the slide shortly after it happened. Often, the planes of weakness are visible simply by looking at the rock face.
“A lot of times you don’t have to see all of it to know it is there,” Wooten said.
In this case, no one knows whether signs of problem were indeed noticeable or not.
Another option is to drill a core sample into the mountainside, revealing hazards the naked eye can’t see.
“You can get a pretty good idea where those planes of weakness are and what to expect,” Wooten said.
The state doesn’t require quarries to take core samples, however. The federal inspector investigating the massive slide at the Waynesville quarry noted the lack of core samples with dismay.
“The operator had not done any core drilling to determine the make up of the strata of the wall,” the federal inspection report states.
Not my job
While the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has a mining division that signs off on quarry permits, there is little oversight by the agency to ensure the stability of quarry walls.
The N.C. Department of Labor has a mining bureau, but slope stability and engineering don’t come under its purview either. It inspects mines for worker safety — making sure miners wear their hard hats and safety railings are installed around the edge of the mining pit.
The giant quarry walls and rock faces that workers toil below — and whether they are at risk of collapsing — aren’t part of the inspection.
“We are not geologists so to speak,” said William Gerringer, chief of the N.C. Department of Labor’s Mining?Bureau.
The state does have a team of geologists in the N.C. Geological Survey, but they aren’t tasked with inspecting quarries or signing off on mining plans as a matter of course.
On occasion, Dr. Kenneth Taylor, the head of the N.C. Geological Survey, has been asked to walk a proposed quarry site when the state mining agency was short-staffed. And it’s a good thing, since he noticed red flags that his mining counterparts didn’t see.
Taylor uncovered signs of recent and recurring landslide activity at a proposed quarry site in Jackson County that had gone unnoticed by the mining officials. And at a proposed quarry down East, Taylor merely had to glance at the site to recognize subtle depressions in the ground as evidence of sink holes. He stopped the mining official who was with him from going any further given the risk of being swallowed.
“There are areas where my specialty of geological hazards can make us realize, ‘OK, that’s not a smart thing to do there,’” Taylor said.
State officials suggested engineering oversight might fall under the purview of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. But the feds pointed the finger back at the state.
“The state regulates the permitting,” said Don Ratliff, the regional supervisor of the MSHA out of Knoxville. “Our agency does not require them to submit a written plan.”
That changes after an accident, however, like the one at the Waynesville quarry.
“Once they have a slide develop, if we come in and find they weren’t maintaining the stability of the wall, they have to tell us how they are going to fix it,” Ratliff said.
The federal agency won’t offer an independent assessment of the plan that got submited, however.
“As far as us critiquing it or telling them how they have to do it, we are not allowed to do that,” Ratliff said. “We are not allowed to tell the mine operator how to conduct business.”
The MSHA inspect quarries, including the Waynesville quarry, twice a year. They check the electrical systems, drilling and blasting equipment, company logs, fire prevention and the like. The Mine Safety Act has a section that specifically refers to the stability of quarry walls.
“Mining methods shall be used that will maintain wall, bank and slope stability in places where persons work or travel in performing their assigned tasks,” the act states. But apparently, neither federal nor state regulators monitor exactly how this is being achieved.
Following the March 2009 slide, state and federal agencies perked up. An investigation of the slide was conducted by Dr. Dai Choi, a geotechnical expert with the federal MSHA based in West Virginia, resulting in a citation.
On the state side, mining officials required a certified geotechnical engineer to develop a plan for fixing the slide.
In his investigation, Choi noticed signs that would have clued a geologist into a potential hazard.
He noted a slip displacement of the mountainside above the quarry wall. Choi could also see joints indicating a plane of weakness lurked behind the rock face. Choi also noticed evidence of smaller slides that occurred around the quarry.
“Smaller slope failures were either not noticed or the company could not tell us when they occurred, even though such failures could lead to a larger slide,” Choi said.
Choi also found the quarry failed to divert rainwater running off the mountain from spilling over the quarry wall into joints in the rock, cracking the rock as it froze and thawed.
“Drainage was not provided and [rain] was allowed to run freely down the slope and over the edge of the highwall,” Choi wrote in his report. “Surface run-off ditches were draining into the joint where the slide occurred.”
Choi said it was a primary contributing factor in the slide.
The quarry’s poor rainwater management had contributed to another slide, albeit much smaller, in 2005, according to state reports.
A large stockpile of unwanted material — primarily the top layer of dirt and debris stripped off the mountainside before reaching granite bedrock — partially collapsed in 2005. The stockpile is essentially a big heap, and prior to 2005 it was not being properly compacted, according to a report by outside engineers called in after the slide. Quarry workers would add to the pile from the top down, dumping loads off a hillside onto the pile below. The pile had grown more than 100 feet high.
The slopes of the giant stockpile did not have adequate drainage for rainwater and were not being properly compacted, triggering a partial collapse of the pile, according to the report of an outside engineer hired to assess the slide.
The engineers said the quarry’s method of dumping loads onto the crest of the pile was “not an acceptable method.” Instead, the base of the pile needed to be made wider. The pile should then grow from the bottom up, using a series of benches to access the growing pile. The pile should be compacted as it grows, according to the report by Foundation Systems Engineering based in Knoxville.
One of the grounds for denying a quarry permit is past performance. The criteria specifically cites landslides, and whether past performance “indicates a substantial possibility” of a slide occurring.
State environmental regulators in Asheville were unaware that the Waynesville quarry had been cited following the 2009 slide, even though they are tasked with making regular inspections to ensure the quarry is complying with its permit.
“There were no violations cited after the March 2009 slide,” Janet Boyer, regional land quality supervisor with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said after checking the quarry’s file.
Judy Wehner, assistant mining specialist in Raleigh, said the state last week received its first copy of the citation issued more than a year ago. Wehner said she had known about it, however, even though it was not part of the quarry’s record on file with the state.
Harrison Construction’s rock quarry on Allens Creek in Waynesville mines granite for building roads, driveways and concrete house pads. The raw crushed stone forms the base for roadbeds and is also the main ingredient in asphalt and concrete. Harrison has an asphalt plant next door to its quarry.
Before the recession, demand from private developments fueled demand for the quarry’s stone — around 850,000 tons a year. Now, the quarry is doing half that, said Don Mason, who’s in charge of environmental compliance at Harrison’s quarries in the region.
If it weren’t for the Allens Creek quarry, paving in Haywood County would cost a premium to haul in asphalt and gravel.
“When you have to truck the product that far it gets very very expensive,” Mason said.
Harrison Construction owns seven quarries — one in each of the seven western counties. Together, all seven quarries employ 80 to 90 employees, down from 150 to 170 at the peak of the building boom.
Opponents acknowledge the quarry’s role.
“There ain’t a driveway in Haywood County that don’t have Harrison stone on it,” said Michael Rogers, a neighbor fighting the quarry expansion.
A grassroots effort to halt a mine expansion in west Waynesville jumped its first hurdle last week.
Citizens have convinced a state environmental agency that there’s enough community interest over the rock quarry expansion to hold a formal public hearing on the matter.
In April, Harrison Construction Company applied for a state permit from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to add about 13 acres to its 302-acre quarry on Allens Creek Road.
The company claims it must expand its gravel mining operations to help repair a slide caused by a wall failure inside its existing pit.
The slide sent a 600-foot slab of rock crashing down at the Waynesville rock quarry, which dislodged 480,000 tons of earth and buried a drilling rig.
“It can’t be left the way it is,” said Don Mason, environmental compliance officer for Harrison. “It has to be repaired ... This expansion is a safety act, not a mining act.”
Harrison says it needs to “back up far enough” to replace the quarry’s sheer face with a terraced-system to prevent future slides. While disturbing nearly 12 out of the 13 acres, Harrison plans to leave a hundred-foot-buffer around the perimeter.
Mason said mining more gravel is essential to repairing the slide.
“Are we going there specifically to mine that section? No,” said Mason. “We’re going there to repair the slide.”
But, residents say bringing the quarry that much closer to their doorstep will heighten health hazards by exposing them to more dust, which can cause extreme respiratory problems and even death. They claim blasting at the quarry already rattles their windows and cracks house foundations and walls.
Noise pollution, environmental damage including possible water pollution, and harm to property values are other objections to the expansion.
Mason retorted that the mine complies with strict state and federal regulations, and has never received complaints about structural problems. In reality, DENR records show there has been at least one complaint regarding cracks in a nearby house’s foundation and driveway retaining wall, which may have been caused by blasting.
Resident Nancy McGurdy said she built a cabin only 10 years ago near the quarry, and she’s already discovered a crack in her basement floor.
A petition that is being circulated states that the quarry creates undesirable living conditions for both humans and animals and destroys the natural beauty of the mountains, which is extremely important to residents, tourists, and the local economy.
“You can grow another tree, but you cannot grow another mountain,” said resident John Willis.
According to Judy Wehner, assistant state mining specialist with DENR, the fate of most mining permit applications are decided without a public hearing.
In this case, residents have gathered nearly 200 signatures protesting the mine expansion and demanding a public hearing. It held two community meetings, and solicited support from county commissioners, U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler, Governor Bev Purdue, and at least three state legislators.
More than 30 nearby residents appeared at a recent county board meeting, convincing commissioners to send a letter to DENR requesting a public hearing.
Many at the meeting complained that DENR sent out only six letters informing residents about the permit application, though the state agency was following policy, which states that only those who live 1,000 feet from the affected area must be notified.
“That’s spelled out in the law,” said Wehner.
Public interest turned out to exceed six families, however.
Michael Rogers has lived near the mine for more than 50 years, but this is the first and only time he’s ever been notified by DENR about a potential expansion. Rogers said the state agency would hardly receive the “significant public input” that’s required to hold a public hearing from the six families that were notified.
So he and his neighbors spearheaded an effort to stop Harrison Construction Company in its tracks.
“I know Harrison Construction has an interest in mining gravel, but I think they’ve disturbed enough of the mountain,” said Rogers.
Health concerns are especially significant for Rogers. His neighbor’s three grandchildren all have serious cases of asthma and must regularly go on antibiotics to cure their earaches.
Rogers recalled driving home one day and thinking the mountain was on fire when it was actually dust from rock near the quarry. “It matters which way the wind is blowing,” said Rogers. “It pushes it all right over us.”
Another concern for Rogers is seeing the quarry come as close as four feet to the springhead he shares with two other families.
“If we lose our wells and springs, how are we going to get back drinking water for our property?” asked Rogers.
According to Rogers, three residents have already signed up to file class action suits against Harrison Construction Company, due to mica from dust allegedly killing a family member.
He said he and his neighbors, too, are unafraid to take legal recourse if necessary.
Rogers has little sympathy for Harrison’s claim that it must repair a slide on its property.
“If they’ve had a failure, it ain’t anybody’s fault but their own,” said Rogers. “I think it’s just poor mining practices.”
According to Mason, the slide was caused by a fault in the foundation, which caused a section of the high-wall to fail.
Mason said he has the support of geologists from the state and federal governments when it comes to expanding the mine. He said he invited the neighborhood to attend a question and answer session last week but only four neighbors showed up.
“The information on all this is readily available,” said Mason, adding that few have taken up the company on its offer.
But Rogers said he and his neighbors have contacted Harrison Construction in the past and voiced concerns about the quarry and previous expansions, but they received little attention from the company. This time, they changed strategy and decided to go straight to DENR instead.
The neighborhood group said it would hand out flyers on Election Day to educate the community. It plans to meet again at 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 13, at the Grandview Lodge in Waynesville.