Quarry Conflict – Mining company’s blasting alarming some

Quarry Conflict – Mining company’s blasting alarming some in FountainFOUNTAIN, N.C. – Alex Albright quietly sat with his legs crossed on the edge of his son’s twin bed. The volunteer fire department’s noon siren howled over the sounds of chirping birds and the occasional 18-wheeler accelerating on nearby N.C. 222. He fixed his gaze toward a window that faces a rock quarry less than a half mile away. His 4-year-old son, Silas, continued beating a path between a pile of toys and a plate of chips covered with slices of cheese. Without warning, a low rumble resembling the distant roll of thunder briefly shook the toys scattered around the room. Albright immediately turned his attention from the window and looked down the rim of his glasses. “That was a light one,” he said. The blasts loosen stone that Martin Marietta mines for construction projects throughout the region. It detonates the dynamite about three times a week. It has operated the quarry in western Pitt County for years. But since the summer of 2003, some of the company’s neighbors in nearby Fountain have become increasingly more concerned and vocal about the explosions and the damage they say blasts are causing to homes, streets and other buildings. A consultant they hired supports their claims, even though the blasts are well within what state standards consider acceptable. Now, several residents in the 533-person community want the multi-million dollar corporation to take responsibility for cracked walls and plaster, falling pictures and other complaints. The company hopes its own study and will resolve any problems. Unless an agreement can be reached, the dispute could end up in a lawsuit and stall the company’s efforts to bring the quarry even closer to town. Martin Marietta representatives said it is unlikely their blasting has caused any damage, and they should be allowed to expand their operations after fixing a technical error in an application to modify their state permit. “Our blasting levels are measured at the closest house,” said Paxton Badham, Martin Marietta vice president of land and environment. “Most of the people there, including Mr. Albright, are much further away than the closest house. Readings at the closest house are well below half of what the state says is safe.” In May, the company sent a proposal to S&ME, Inc., an engineering and environmental firm, to investigate the citizens’ claims. S&ME has started its fieldwork and could take the next several months researching the problem before reaching a definitive conclusion. “It’s a terrifying experience,” Albright said of the blasting. “It shakes you, and it physically moves your house. I’m not used to it at all, and it’s something that I have no intentions of getting used to.” Albright, 53, is an associate professor of English at East Carolina University. He moved to Fountain from Greenville nearly three years ago when he purchased a business in the downtown area. He said he was aware of the rock quarry but liked the small-town atmosphere and safety it provided his family as opposed to the high traffic university area. The blasting and damage became more noticeable once the quarry moved its operations in August to the western edge of the pit, closer to town. Martin Marietta’s facility has been in Fountain since the 1960s, and although many citizens complained quietly, they did not send written grievances to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources until 2002. NCDENR, based in Raleigh, ensures the protection of the state’s environmental resources through a number of agencies and regulations. “I didn’t start noticing it until they moved their blasting” said Henry Bailey, 69. “I don’t want them to close (the quarry) down because I have some friends who work out there. But all of this shaking and rattling is too much.” Bailey has lived in his red brick Church Street home since 1967. Several large stair-step cracks climb from on the home’s exterior from the windows to the roof. The cracks are about 4 or 5 feet long and less than an inch wide. Small hairline cracks also run along the brick foundation. Bailey replaced his windows due to cracking but has not made other repairs. Martin Marietta’s permit modification would allow the company to expand the size of its pit, expand the overall size of the quarry site and construct more large berms to shield adjacent land, including one berm 50 feet from the edge of Bailey’s property. The process is in limbo because the company failed to notify the town officials of the application, although it did notify Pitt County and adjoining property owners. A company must renew its mining permit every 10 years, and any change to the original permit is considered a modification. “I guess if they build a berm, I’ll just sit here and look at it,” Bailey said. “It might not be to much else we can do about it.” Jean Jefferson, 62, moved to Fountain four years ago when she married William Jefferson, now 80 years old. She said she was shocked no one has said anything about the blasting and damage until now. The couple completely remodeled their four-bedroom home in 2000 but started noticing new cracks within a couple of months, Jean said. “I cannot believe they’ve allowed this to go on for years without doing anything,” Jefferson said of the residents. “Most of the people here have lived here all of their lives and they don’t want to sell their house, and if they do, who are they going to sell it to, the quarry?” Martin Marietta is Fountain’s largest tax revenue provider. Each year the company pays the town about $35,000 and Pitt County nearly $44,000 in taxes. The facility employs 25 people who purchase goods and services in the town. Martin Marietta prides itself on being a good corporate neighbor by contributing to the communities in which their facilities are located, according to the company’s Web site. “We were voluntarily annexed into the town in the 1990s to give them the benefit of tax revenue,” Badham said. “We’ve contributed to the library, fire and rescue and a water line project in the area. The wage scale is $12-$15 per hour down there, and that is good money.” The company agreed to the 1993 annexation if commissioners went through the proper steps to have State Road 1240 near the quarry closed. Six citizens attended the meeting, and according to the minutes, they expressed concerns about closing the road. Former Mayor Melody Strickland stressed the tax benefits if the town allowed the annexation to occur, according to the minutes. For some citizens, however, damage to their homes outweighs financial benefits provided by the quarry. In March, Albright and others hired a consultant for $150 per hour to evaluate several homes, including Bailey’s, to see if the damage was, in fact, due to the quarry’s blasting. He posted a public notice, and anyone could have their home inspected. Debra Laefer, an associate professor of civil engineering at North Carolina State University, examined 26 structures. Laefer said she expected the problem was that Martin Marietta’s blasting levels were too high. Levels are measured by how many inches per second vibrations travel after each detonation. The state has adopted the blasting level of 2 inches per second, which is considered safe by industry standards. “I was expecting to see something straightforward,” Laefer said at a town meeting in April about her investigation. “But Martin Marietta is really being a good neighbor. Their records show that blasting is actually at the European level of .2 inches per second.” Laefer concluded the blasting was not the problem, but the energy released afterward was. She said because of the type of soil and high water tables, many of the homes were experiencing what happens during an earthquake. For more than a decade, Laefer has specialized in damage to historical structures due to construction. She also has studied at the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute in Oakland, Calif. “The blasting is not shaking the houses so hard that they are moving,” Laefer said. “Instead, the energy released after the blast is causing the soil beneath the structure to move.” Sh
e said what was happening was “blast-induced liquefaction,” which happens when vibrations cause soil that is saturated with groundwater to move freely. Liquefaction is not a well-known phenomenon, but it has been the subject of several government reports and academic articles. “The soil matrix is no longer able to support the building,” she said. “In that moment, the building goes into free fall, but it doesn’t happen for a very long period of time, only a matter of seconds. But at three times a week it gets very repetitive.” Laefer also said the town’s streets have an unusual number of potholes and sinkholes have formed in some lawns, which she linked to partial liquefaction. She observed more than 109 potholes or groups of potholes that were several feet wide in a five-block radius. Laefer said she was particularly concerned about the Fountain Presbyterian Church at the corner of Church and Lang streets. It was constructed between 1920 and 1940 with an addition in the 1950s. Cracking is evident throughout the building. “It started small in the nursery,” the Rev. Claude Andrews said. “I’ve been here for about 16 years. We didn’t really notice it too much early on, but within the last eight to 10 months, we’ve seen the cracks grow.” The church is less than a mile from the quarry. Hairline and stair-stepped cracks have formed in a majority of the interior and exterior walls and the stained glass windows have cracked. At the end of the building facing the quarry, the wall is separating from the main structure, Laefer said. The cracks appear to be 1 inch or more in width. Laefer released a report of her findings in late April. “The building may present an imminent life-safety issue …,” she said in the report. “I strongly recommend that a structural engineer be brought (in) immediately to assess whether this building should remain occupied. … I do, however, believe that left untreated there may be a danger of collapses, if not immediately, then certainly with additional levels of damage that appear to be inevitable with the current blasting levels and plans.” S&ME, hired by Martin Marietta, has proposed to further investigate the potential for liquefaction by digging beneath the surface into the ground with a corkscrew type of machine to at least 50 feet. Soil samples would be taken at 21/2-foot intervals above the depth of 10 feet and at 5-foot intervals when the digging gets below 10 feet, according to the proposal. Once the digging is complete, the groundwater would be measured. S&ME has estimated the analysis would cost between $1,600-4,000, depending on the initial fieldwork. The company has experience in detecting blast-induced liquefaction, according to its Web site. “It is important to realize that it may not be possible to determine with certainty whether blast-induced vibrations could cause liquefaction,” S&ME Project Engineer J. Nathan Reeves said in the proposal. “This is mainly due to the fact that liquefaction analysis methods are based on earthquake-induced ground motions.” In late December, Martin Marietta hired Engineering Design and Testing Corp. in Charlotte to examine the homes of Albright and William Jefferson. In both homes, engineer Steve Morris noted cracks in the ceiling, walls and mortar. Morris also said the Jefferson home had high moisture levels, which could affect the ability of the soil to support the structure. He concluded the cracks were a result of long-term settlement and age. “… No evidence of damage associated with vibration was observed at the Jefferson residence,” he said in a report dated Dec. 29. “The observed damage cannot be attributed to vibrations associated with blasting at the nearby quarry.” NCDENR also investigated the quarry’s blasting records from August 2003 until February and found the company was in compliance with state regulations. Judy Wehner, assistant state mining specialist said the damage citizens are claiming should not be happening at the levels recorded at Martin Marietta. Badham, a company vice president, said in an April telephone interview the company had never received any complaints until some new residents started moving into town. “We’ve gotten along very well in that town for a lot of years,” Badham said. “It’s just been since some new people moved in town that these problems have cropped up. It’s just relatively a few people trying to stir up something.” David Owens, 74, has been a lifetime resident of Fountain. His trucking company has transported rocks from the quarry since the mid-70s. He said Martin Marietta has been good to his family and the town, and although his home has some damage, it is not totally because of the quarry. “I feel like it has done a little damage,” Owens said in a telephone interview. “Any time you blast, you are going to have little tremors, and you’re going to have a little damage. It seems to be one person who is causing the uproar, and he is brainwashing the older people. (Albright) bought an old house, and that’s what you get.” Albright said he is not trying to cause trouble, but help protect the community. He does not want to see the dispute end in court, but he has consulted with an attorney. The permit modification approved erroneously by the state in October 2002 gives citizens more ammunition for their argument, Albright added. “This is the big fight,” he said. “This is what we were looking for. I don’t know what will happen, but the permit should not be granted. To come this close to people’s homes is ridiculous.” Fountain Commissioner Gloria Gaynor said she believes damage has been happening for years but there hasn’t been anyone willing to stand up and say anything about it. Julian Gaynor, Gloria’s husband, sent a letter to NCDENR in November 2002 expressing his concern about the permit bringing the quarry closer to town. Julian Gaynor grew up in Fountain, and Gloria moved to the town when the couple married in 1973. Their home, less than a mile from the quarry, has cracking in the foundation and plaster, which recently was painted. “I think it’s been something we’ve all thought for years,” Gloria said. “But we just didn’t know how to say it or what to do about it. (Albright) has given us a voice to speak up about what is going on.” Mark Owens, a Pitt County commissioner for nearly 12 years, is a native of the Fountain area. The 67-year-old attorney said he began seeing cracks in 1967, but he does not know if it is because of blasting at the quarry. Since the claims of damage started, Owens said none of the citizens have come to him as a county commissioner, but he is more than willing to listen. “There are all sorts of problems that you will find in any community,” Owens said. “It is not very pleasant having a blast shake your windows, but I’m sure in recent years (Martin Marietta) has contributed to the tax base of the town. “I’m also sure they’ve helped the county. The advantage of employment and tax base has exceeded any complaint that I may have because of the blasting, personally.” Badham said if Martin Marietta has caused any structural damage to homes in the town, the citizens have a right to sue the company, and officials for NCDENR said their records are available to any citizen. “Regardless of what (Laefer) said, I don’t think there is anything to that at all,” Bradham said. “From a scientific standpoint, it is inconceivable that we are doing anything that they say.” By Latisha R. GrayThe Daily Reflector

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