Gerald Hall stood in his farm field, where the collards nearly reached his knees. On about three and a half acres between them, Hall and one of his brothers grow myriad greens, like Swiss chard and kale, and in the summer, warm-weather crops, such as tomatoes and peppers, all headed to restaurant and local groceries, including Deep Roots co-op in nearby Greensboro.
Hall, known around these parts as the Egg Man, also raises laying hens, whose eggs he packages by hand and then sells wholesale or by the dozen from a small shed a few steps from his house.
“I used to work in paving,” Hall said of his former job as asphalt manager for the City of Greensboro. “In the summer, we’d work all night. And the trucks would be hauling rock and asphalt all night long.”
Just when Hall thought he had left behind the stench of asphalt for the fresh country air, now he and his neighbors are battling a proposed granite quarry, that, if built, would abut his family’s 80-year-old farm in Pleasant Garden. Just 100 feet from Hall’s property, the trucks would fill their beds with rock that earlier had been blasted from an open pit in the earth, then haul it away — at times, all night long.
Tonight the Guilford County Commissioners are scheduled to vote on a rezone of more than 350 acres that was originally zoned to be a clay mine. But the hometown company, Boren Brick, never so much as took a steam shovel to the dirt. Instead, the company went out of business, and sold the land to Lehigh Hanson aggregate, a large subsidiary of a German company that owns hundreds of mines and quarries nationwide and 11 in North Carolina.
More than 2,000 people, including the mayor of Pleasant Garden, Carla Strickland, oppose the rezone, which would allow Lehigh to mine granite. Unlike clay, mining hard rock requires blasting. And blasting invites a host of potential environmental problems that could harm the quality of life of residents of rural Pleasant Garden. And there is a very real possibility that in the future, an asphalt or concrete plant could be built on an unused section of the Lehigh property.
There’s another complication to this story that started 80 miles away, in the stale halls of the General Assembly. This session, lawmakers passed House Bill 56. A grab-bag of environmental laws, the bill contains a controversial section that sharply limits public input once state environmental officials issue a mining or landfill permit. These permits are known as “life-of-site.” These permits are valid for as long as a company wants to keep blasting, keep digging, keep the trucks running all night long.
“Somewhere back there is a big hunk of granite,” Heather Davis said, as we walked a muddy path through a forest owned by Lehigh Hanson. She knows these woods well, having played in them as a child. This land has a long history. Davis’s husband recently found a 1910 penny in the ground. Along the path, remnants of an abandoned home from the 1980s lie in ruins.
Davis’s family has farmed on Kearney Road for more than 100 years, qualifying it as a century farm. The family has been a careful steward of the property, installing a watering system to keep its beef cattle from polluting a creek that runs through the property. “It’s an environmental catastrophe.”
To the non-commercial eye, a piece of granite is merely an interesting rock. But to mining companies, it’s worth money, a commodity to be sold to builders of roads and makers of kitchen countertops. To get at the granite requires enormous force, like extracting a wisdom tooth embedded in the bone. Miners use dynamite to blast, which Toby Lee, general manager of Lehigh Hanson’s North Carolina operations, says “makes little rocks out of big rocks.”
Blasting and mining, though, can have environmental consequences. First, depending on the geology and topography of a region, the force of the dynamite can change the flow of groundwater. Groundwater that once flowed north to south might turn southeast. If you depend on groundwater for your drinking water well, that slight change in direction can mean the difference between Davis having water — or not.
In the process of mining and quarrying, excavators eventually dig deeply enough to hit the water table. The enormous pit fills with water, and to continue excavating, mining operators must “dewater.” The process is similar to a wet vac, but instead of slurping up a few gallons of water, it drinks the pit dry. That creates what’s known as a “cone of depression,” in the aquifer. The water from nearby private wells run dry, as well.
Documents filed with the rezoning application state that wells deeper than 300 feet should not lose water as a result of the mining. Davis’s well, the fourth they’ve had to drill, is shallow — 250 feet. It could go dry. A groundwater analysis conducted on behalf of Lehigh Hanson identified 84 wells on 300 parcels within a mile of the proposed quarry. The average depth is 200 feet.
Hall uses well water to irrigate his crops. “If I run out of water for any length of time, I’m done,” he said. “This is my only source of income.”
The effects on residents’ groundwater and drinking water are only estimates. According to the groundwater analysis, there could be unexpected complications once excavation begins. “Based on results of study and understanding of mine pit development,” the document reads, baseline monitoring of a few select private wells should also be considered in the event that actual conditions beneath the site are different than anticipated.”
The water that the mining company has sucked out of the pit has to go somewhere. That somewhere, Hall said, is in a dry creek bed that runs along his fence line. That tributary, its spring now dried up, leads to several ponds. One of those ponds is Hall’s go-to fishing spot, where he once caught a large bass that is mounted on his living room wall.
Lee of Lehigh Hanson told Policy Watch that the company has done groundwater pumping studies, no chemicals would be used in the mining, and that “there is no cause for concern.” He said the company would install monitoring wells around the property to ensure neighbors have an ample water supply. But he acknowledged there is no sampling plan nor a draft map of where the wells would be installed.
Blasting could occur Monday through Friday anytime from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Couple that noise with the rumble and exhaust associated with truck traffic also could harm residents’ quality of life. Planning documents show that trucks would make 287 trips per day. That would increase the traffic on the narrow McClellan and Racine roads by one third. Although the company would be required to pay for some road improvements to allow trucks to navigate tight turns, the roads in the area, including Highway 62, are two-lane. The side roads, main routes from Pleasant Garden schools to the town’s outskirts, would also have to accommodate the truck traffic.
Yet the unseen threat to Pleasant Garden is Lehigh Hanson’s vacant acreage. Concrete or asphalt plants often co-locate near quarries and mines to reduce transportation costs. Along Capital Boulevard in Wake Forest, Lehigh Hanson operates a stone quarry. Next door, the Fred Smith Company runs an asphalt plant. Asked about Lehigh Hanson’s plans for such a plant near its Pleasant Garden mine, Lee dodged the question: “One thing at a time,” he said. “We have to focus on the rezone first.”
If built, the Lehigh Hanson mine in Pleasant Garden would be the 766th active mine in North Carolina. Yet despite the number of mines, DEMLR, as the division is known, has issued just 12 Notices of Violation in the past five years, according to state environmental records. Lehigh Hanson has not been cited since at least 2012.
Of those 12 violations issued to active mines, most were related to inadequate buffers and erosion. Other types included fly rock that escaped the property boundary, a failure to seismically monitor blasting, and inadequate reclamation of the mine.
Whether the small number of violations reflects impeccable compliance by mining operators, a lack of enforcement or inspection frequency, or the content of mining laws themselves, is hard to tease out. The number of annual inspections has varied from 884 in Fiscal Year 2012 to just 492 in 2016-2017. During that time, most of the violations have been issued for mining without a permit — 70.
The timing of Guilford County’s decision on the rezone is notable because it dovetails with legislation that favors mining companies. House Bill 56, allows companies to apply for and receive “life of site” permits from the NC Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Energy, Mining and Land Resources. Instead of periodic renewals, during which time, the public can formally comment on the permit, a life-of-site limits that input.
Life of site is defined as from the moment the state issues the permit until the mine reclamation — essentially some form of land restoration — is finished. This could take years, even a decade or more. And no reclamation permit is required for the company to restore the land, as long as the company adheres to its formal plan. If a mine owner wants to modify an existing permit to a life-of-site, a public hearing is not required. Only if state environmental officials determines there is “significant public interest” — a term that is not defined — would a hearing be held.
The terms of the legislation go into effect Dec. 1. On that date, all existing permits automatically become life-of-site permits. Even if Lehigh Hanson’s permit is still not issued by the date — unlikely unless it is fast-tracked — the company later can ask for a life-of-site.
For residents like Heather Davis and Gerald Hall, a mine could easily dog future generations of Pleasant Garden. The Davises and the Halls inherited their land from their ancestors and they plan to keep it in their respective families. “We were here before they were,” Hall said of Lehigh Hanson. If the mine is built, “it’s never going away.”