Wake Stone’s proposal to mine next to Umstead State Park faces more opposition — and support from a lawmaker

A bridge spans a creek in Umstead State Park. Opponents of a proposal for adjacent mine say the operation will harm waterways leading to and within the park. (Photo: NC Parks)

Two public hearings, six-plus hours and hundreds of people: The controversy over a proposed the quarry on 225 acres of prime wildlife habitat next to Umstead State Park continued this morning as concerned citizens spoke about the effects of the project on a treasured property, as well as on park-goers and neighbors.

Most of the 200 individuals who spoke at the virtual public hearings hosted by the NC Department of Environmental Quality opposed the Wake Stone proposal for an amended mining permit, citing blasting noise, air pollution, destruction of wildlife habitat and harm to water resources, including Crabtree Creek.

Holly Neal worked for two years as a seasonal office administrator at the park’s visitor center. She told DEQ that sediment runoff from Wake Stone’s nearby existing mine already flows into the park, streams and eventually Crabtree Creek. “I’ve seen this myself,” Neal said. “Even with no rain, the stream was very cloudy white.”

David Humphrey, an engineer, said there is “a very strong potential for Crabtree Creek water to discharge into groundwater as a result of quarry dewatering and thereby result in violations of groundwater standards.”

Upstream runoff from the Ward Transformer Superfund site has already contaminated Crabtree Creek with cancer-causing PCBs.

Liz Adams, a research associate at the UNC Institute for the Environment in the field of air quality, monitors levels of PM 2.5 on her bike rides around the park. PM 2.5 is short for particulate matter that is 2.5 microns in size, less than the width of a human hair. Particulate matter this small can burrow deep into the lungs and cause or worsen respiratory and heart disease.

This illustration of the proposed Wake Stone mine expansion shows Interstate 40 to the south and Old Reedy Creek Road to the west. Old Reedy Creek Road leads to Umstead State Park, and is a main entrance off the greenway system. A popular destination for scouting trips, Foxcroft Lake, to the northeast, would span both the mining boundary and the park. (Map: DEQ)

Adams said that she mounted a Plume Flow sensor on her bike to track PM 2.5 levels for one year. On some days, she said, the concentration at the existing quarry entrance of 200 micrograms per cubic meter. The EPA has determined that concentration is unhealthy — or Code Red — and that everyone exposed to that level in the air could suffer health effects. At a level of 201 to 300 micrograms per cubic meter, the air is considered very unhealthy by the EPA.

The land in question, known as the Oddfellows Tract, is technically owned by Wake and Durham counties and Raleigh and Durham, but the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority manages it. Last year the Airport Authority board leased the tract to Wake Stone for $2 million a move that opponents are challenging in court.

At the time, the Airport Authority board reasoned that RDU needed the money for its expansion plans. However, last month the board significantly scaled back those plans, cut its budget by nearly half and deferred major capital projects because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Raleigh City Councilman David Cox told DEQ that the Airport Authority “didn’t get Raleigh’s permission to lease the tract. We haven’t abdicated our authority or our jurisdiction.”

Former Morrisville Mayor Mark Stohlman also opposed the project because of its potential harm to the park’s trail users.

“The towns of Morrisville and Cary has invested tens of millions of dollars in greenway systems and facilities, including Black Creek, Hatcher Creek and Crabtree Creek trails,” Stohlman said. “All these trails lead directly to Umstead State Park and the Old Reedy Creek Road area, and the thousands of regular trail users will be adversely impacted by the increased noise, dust and truck traffic.”

Supporters included State Rep. Darren Jackson, a Democrat who lives in Knightdale, where Wake Stone operates another quarry; Knightdale Mayor James Roberson and Knightdale Town Manager Bill Summers.

The company donated a $2.5 million park adjacent to the quarry, Jackson said. However, it is common for companies to give money to public projects to help deflect opposition. Wake Stone has also promised to restore some land around the Oddfellows Tract for future trails after the quarry rock is exhausted.

Jackson received a total of $7,500 in campaign contributions from three top Wake Stone officials — Sam Bratton, Theodore Bratton and Tom Oxholm — last October, according to the State Board of Elections.

In 2018 Jackson received  $750 from Wake Stone. And in 2017, Wake Stone contributed $4,000 to Jackson’s campaign.

They said they have received no complaints about Wake Stone’s operations in Knightdale. “They’ve been good partner and neighbor and a key stakeholder in our community,” Roberson said.

Wake Stone received a mining permit in 1981 to operate on nearby land off Harrison Avenue and I-40. The company, which runs several quarries in central North Carolina, claims that its current proposal, a 300-foot deep mine, is merely an expansion.

And since the project is an expansion, Wake Stone believes it should be subject to the original mining permit from 1981. The permit contains a “sunset clause” whose original language required the company to offer the land to the state after mining operations ceased or 50 years, whichever is sooner.

If held to the original wording, Wake Stone would have no interest in the current mining land — or the Oddfellows Tract for the expansion — after 2031.

But in 2011 and again in March 2018, when Wake Stone was working on its expansion proposal, the company asked DEQ to change the permit to say “later,” rather than “sooner.” The company said the wording was a typographical error and should align with the original language in a Mining Commission document. That document does say “later.”

The Mining Commission has not met since 2015. However, a bill in the legislature today would consider the governor’s appointment of Sam Bratton of Wake Stone to the commission.

In response to Wake Stone’s request, DEQ changed the permit wording, but did not hold a public hearing or notify local city or county governments. DEQ had deemed that the change was not substantial, even though the effect was to allow mining to proceed for an indefinite period of time.

DEQ’s decision, combined with a 2017 state law that allows mining companies to have “life-of-site permits” rather than periodic renewals, opened a loophole for Wake Stone.

Stohlman said the expansion would not even be possible “without the sunset clause being changed, unbeknownst to the municipalities that invested in all these trail systems.”

Joseph Huberman was suspicious of the claim that the original sunset clause wording was merely an error. “This paragraph is clear and obvious, being located on the signature page,” Huberman said. ” This permit, with the Sunset Clause intact, was reviewed and modified eight times over 36 years. It is incomprehensible that the purpose of this paragraph went unnoticed when the permit was issued, as well as the many times it was modified.”

Attorney Mark Springfield told DEQ that it must deny Wake Stone’s request, based on legal language that it will have an “significant adverse effect on the purpose of the park.”

“A key purpose of the park is to protect an area in a rapidly growing region,” Springfield said, and for an urban population to enjoy a natural setting.”

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