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Neighbors draw the line over latest rock 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.”

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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.

Public uproar

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.

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