State must do better job at Allens Creek quarry

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.

Testing points to potential sediment runoff issues at quarry

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.

Dual oversight

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.

Quarry neighbors square off against workers at public hearing

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.

Quarry regulations fall between the cracks

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.

Taking notice

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.

Quarry expansion plan fuels residents’ complaints

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.

Muddy water

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.

Dust plumes

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.

Impressive showing

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.

Why now?

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.

Want to weigh in?

A public hearing on the expansion of the Allens Creek rock quarry in Waynesville will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 16, in the historic courthouse on Main Street in Waynesville. Comments will be accepted in writing through June 25. Email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or write to Dr. Kenneth Taylor; 1612 Mail Service Center; Raleigh, NC 27699–1612.

Quarry plays vital role in economy

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.

Strand project kick started with state grant

Hidden behind 16 feet of Main Street storefront, the inside of The Strand Theater looks like a cave. The floor slopes down to a black stage surrounded by tall, black walls. Old theater chairs are stacked on the wall closest to Wall Street.

Tools, random pieces of furniture and a few lights are scattered around the interior. A ramp leads up to the balcony, which is little more than wooden beams overlaid with plywood.

But all of that is about to change.

“I can see it all,” developer Richard Miller said, looking around the vacated building. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Miller has renovated several other properties, including buildings at the corner of Church and Main Streets. He acquired the theater in a trade for apartments and condos last year, he said.

The theater has been closed since the early 1980s, and opening The Strand again will cost about $1.4 million, Miller said. His next step is raising $1 million from investors who can contribute between $50,000 and $250,000. Waynesville has secured a $300,000 grant from the state’s Main Street Solutions fund to renovate the theater.

“We are offering a chance to own a piece of Waynesville and a piece of Waynesville’s future,” he said.

Kevin Sandefur, founder of Headwaters Brewing Company, said he thinks the renovated theater will draw more tourists.

“I think it will be a huge draw to the downtown area because there’s not an attraction on Main Street,” he said.

Sandefur will be opening a microbrewery in the theater. He also won $8,000 in the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce Business Start-up Competition this year to buy brewing and bottling equipment so he can start selling his beer out of The Classic Wine Seller on Church Street, which is also owned by Miller. The area at the Strand will serve as a small distribution center, he said.

He has established five beers he will serve at both the Strand and The Wine Seller, including a rich, robust chocolate porter; an Irish red; an ale that’s one of his favorites; a hoppy, citrusy IPA; a lager; and his award-winning Black Eye Rye.

Sandefur said he also plans to create specialty beers flavored with local produce. He said he’s both excited and overwhelmed by the grant.

“It puts a sense of urgency on my plans,” he said. “But if anyone can do it, we can.”

Sandefur is a full-time emergency room nurse at Harris Regional Hospital. He works three 12-hour shifts a week but plans on spending some of his own time on the construction since he has a contractor’s license.

“I feel I can invest some time and sweat equity into it,” Sandefur said.

The first steps will be leveling the floor that slopes down to the old stage and fixing the plumbing, Sandefur said.

Sandefur’s brewery will be located beneath the existing balcony. The balcony overlooks the old stage and is perpendicular to Main Street. Although the old stage will be removed and replaced by a kitchen, the balcony will stay.

The old balcony will be walled in and turned into an art gallery. Another lower balcony, opposite of the existing one, will be built over the kitchen with restaurant seating.

An affordable Italian restaurant will occupy the center of the first floor, and a new stage will be built on the wall adjacent to Main Street.

Miller said he envisions a variety of performances, including Sunday morning gospel music accompanied by brunch.

Although the Main Street grant is a start, Miller said he and others will not receive the money until the building’s renovations are complete.

“It’ll be a good thing to have a building that’s been empty for 25 years open,” Miller said. “It’ll bring a lot of new life to downtown.”

From the time the project has enough investors to start construction, it will take 14 months to complete, Miller said.

Perdue gets enthusiastic welcome in Waynesville

Gov. Beverly Perdue visited Main Street Friday to announce that Waynesville received a $300,000 grant from the state’s Main Street Solutions fund to help with The Strand Theater renovations.

“We decided Waynesville would be one of the best places in the state to invest $300,000,” Perdue said. “That’s not a lot of money, but it’s a jump-start in this economy.”

Eight other towns across North Carolina received money from the fund, totaling $1.95 million.

“It’s pretty cool what you can do with something old to ignite the growth in small towns across North Carolina,” Perdue said.

“I believe fundamentally that the more Main streets we can see grow and prosper the way you’re prospering, the more of that we can do across North Carolina, the better off we’ll be for economic development.”

Buffy Messer, director of the Downtown Waynesville Association, estimated 150 people packed into the Haywood County Arts Council’s Gallery 86 to hear Perdue’s speech.

As the governor entered the gallery, chatter and The Bean Street Boys’ bluegrass music filled the room. Zeb Ross, Levi Ross, Connor Lucky-Smith and Keegan Luck-Smith, ages 13 to 16, have been playing together for seven months.

“We’ve had audiences, but nobody like the governor,” banjo player Levi Ross said.

On the sidewalk outside, local and national Tea Party members used the governor’s visit to protest high taxes and government spending, including the Main Street Solutions grants.

“It’s an opportunity to reinforce with our state leaders that we’re concerned about state spending and what they’re spending it on,” Waynesville Tea Party member Lois Venardi said.

Venardi and other protestors said they did not disagree with the renovation of the theater.

“I think there’s other ways it could be done without using taxpayers’ money,” she said.

After her speech, the governor went to Just Ducky, a clothing and gift store for children, to shop for her grandchildren.

Waynesville bookstore changes ownership

Waynesville residents may soon notice the sign on Main Street’s Blue Ridge Books & Café switched out for a new one that says just Blue Ridge Books.

The name change will be the most conspicuous sign of the switch in ownership that occurred this week.

On Tuesday, co-owners Robert and Betsy Baggett officially handed the reins over to general manager Jo Gilley and children’s buyer Allison Best-Teague.

Gilley was the first employee hired when Blue Ridge Books opened its doors in 2007, while Best-Teague transitioned into the store after it merged with Osondu Booksellers last November.

Robert Baggett, majority owner of Blue Ridge, said after spending many years running a 225-employee printing company in Atlanta along with Blue Ridge Books, he was more than ready for retirement.

Baggett sold his Atlanta business in March but retained the Waynesville bookstore. It was only in May that he decided to retire completely from business and sell the store.

At 61, Robert Baggett plans on spending most of the year in North Carolina while boating in Florida in the winter. His sister Betsy will relocate to Florida, where her twin daughters and granddaughters reside.

Also in May, Margaret Osondu, former owner of Osondu Booksellers and director of operations at Blue Ridge books, announced that she was no longer employed at the bookstore. The terse email she sent out to her newsletter subscribers on May 10 did not provide further explanation.

The Baggetts had earlier purchased property on the corner of Boundary and Walnut streets intending to move Blue Ridge to a new location with more parking. However, the store will remain in its current location due to “cost reasons.”

Robert Baggett has torn down two houses on the property and plans to put the land up for sale. “It’ll make a nice three-unit shopping center,” Robert Baggett said.

The future

After deciding to retire, Robert Baggett concluded that Gilley and Best-Teague and Gilley would comprise the best team moving forward. The two were thrilled with Baggett’s offer.

“It was a dream job to work in a bookstore, but owning one is beyond a dream,” said Gilley.

Best-Teague said she has thought about owning a bookstore ever since she worked at Sloan’s Bookstore in Waynesville, which transformed into the Waynesville Book Company before once again morphing into Osondu Booksellers.

Best-Teague fondly remembers that her son literally took his first steps in that bookstore and how she and her husband dreamed of one day owning the business.

Gilley has experience as office manager in a Charlotte bookstore, while Best-Teague has worked in bookstores since the early ‘90s, including at a women’s bookstore in Durham and a large independent bookstore in Raleigh, Book buying responsibilities will be shared, though each co-owner will bring her own specialty.

Gilley is an avid reader of murder mystery authors and adores handing out biscuits to dogs that walk in with their owners.

Meanwhile, Best-Teague is passionate about children’s books and enjoys holding readings for babies under 3 on Tuesday mornings. When Best-Teague reads on her own, she chooses memoirs of people who aren’t famous.

Both learned a great deal about their new business while doing a throughout inventory of the bookstore recently.

“When you have to put your hand on every book in the store, then you come up with ‘We need more of this and less of that,’” said Best-Teague.

With all the upheavals this past year in the Waynesville bookstore world, both Best-Teague and Gilley are ready to go forward with their new venture and settle into a new routine.

“We’re just excited about focusing on the books,” said Best-Teague.

“We can make the store our own and fine-tune things,” added Gilley.

Even with the lingering threats of e-books and online retailers, both are hopeful that the personal contact that only a local bookstore can offer will help carry the business for years to come.

New venture welcomed by downtown business community

Downtown Waynesville merchants hope a plan to remodel the old Strand theater as an entertainment venue, restaurant and microbrewery will return the former icon to a Main Street magnet once again.

“We are excited about it. We think it is certainly needed here in Waynesville,” said Tom Massie, owner of Massie Furniture. “I think it will bring a lot of people downtown at night who will be exposed to Main Street and see things to come back and buy.”

Those who grew up during the heyday of Friday night features and Saturday matinees remember the line at the former Strand movie theater stretching a block and a half down Main Street. In the days before television, many people went religiously every time a new picture came to town, recalled Bette Sprecher, who grew up during the era.

During the post-World War II years, there were even dueling downtown movie theaters stationed across the street from each other. The Strand remained in operation until the early 1980s when attendance eventually withered too low to remain operational.

“TV kind of ruined the theater business,” said Massie.

Ed Kelley, owner of Ridge Runner Naturals gallery on Main Street, can’t wait until the new venue at the former Strand opens its doors.

“I have been saying this for ages, that the Strand needs to be turned into a brew pub kind of place,” Kelley said. “I think it will enhance what we already have to draw people here.”

Kelley is a musician and appreciates craft beers, so he will likely be a regular. But as a business owner directly across the street, he’s already plotting how to tap into the presumed bump in downtown nightlife.

“I think I will get trickle down from it,” Kelley said. He hopes the evening foot traffic will inspire merchants to stay open later.

“Waynesville pretty much rolls up the sidewalk at 5 or 6,” Kelley said. “I think it will give people some options of things to do in the evenings, which is something we seem to lack.”

It may also motivate more redevelopment.

“If people see things happening, that is good PR, and that can actually enhance somebody’s perception of what Waynesville is or is going to be,” Kelley said.

That’s exactly the outcome Buffy Messer, the director of Downtown Waynesville Association, was hoping for when chasing a grant to make the Strand venture a reality.

“The project will spur more interest and growth not only in our downtown, but also in our community,” Messer said. “An economically vibrant and growing downtown is not just good in itself — it is vital for a prosperous region.”

Besides, merchants could use some rosy news, she said, not only due to a two-year recession but a winter hammered by snowstorms that kept shoppers holed up at home.

“It was just a really rough winter. The snow came every Friday. It killed their weekends,” Messer said of the merchants. There are certainly signs 2010 will mark a turn-around based on downtown development in recent months. In addition to half a dozen retail shops and a couple new professional businesses, two large anchor buildings have been filled. Main Street Artist’s Co-op moved into the space vacated by Furniture Village and Davis Clothing opened in the former Towne Square space, which had been vacant two years.

There have been two new restaurants to open as well, Nico’s Café and soon Café 50, both of which remodeled downtown spaces in recent months.

While Waynesville’s downtown has been a shining model for Main Street revitalization and the envy of small towns across the state, the once-beloved Strand has remained shuttered. Then a dose of good fortune arrived in February. The state announced a pool of grant money through the new Main Street Solutions Fund, designed to drive economic development by assisting small business owners in downtowns.

“It was the first opportunity we had been given in years for small business,” Messer said. “I couldn’t look back and say I didn’t try.”

Messer and the owner of the Strand, Richard Miller, toiled day and night to complete the application. The grant required an exhaustive business plan and putting it together by the 30-day deadline was be tricky. Luckily, key pieces were already in place. Joey Massie, the Strand’s owner before Miller, had a similar plan to transform the space into an entertainment venue, restaurant and bar. He even had architectural drawings for the interior remodeling work and a business plan. Massie never got the project off the ground, however, because the renovations were cost-prohibitive.

Massie’s architectural drawings and business plan provided a foundation for the application. Meanwhile, a local beer brewer, Kevin Sandefur, happened to have a comprehensive business plan in his pocket for the brewery angle. Sandefur created a business plan the previous year in order to enter the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce Business Start-Up competition.

“We wouldn’t have made it if there hadn’t already been some paperwork in place,” Messer said.

Competition was stiff. There were 29 applications requesting $7 million — but only eight were awarded and $1.95 million given out.

The Strand venture will obviously compete with other downtown restaurants and bars. Jennifer Ewart, owner of Nick and Nate’s, a popular Main Street pizza restaurant known for its outstanding selection of microbrews, wonders whether there will be enough business to go around, particularly during winter months. Nick and Nate’s generally has a wait list going by 6 p.m. during the height of summer tourist season, but the winter months are “very slow,” Ewart said, citing that as the true test facing the Strand venture.

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