Residents unite to fight quarry
By D.R. Bartlette
Terry Sossong, right, president of Rogers Group,
prepares to lead a tour of the quarry May 19 before a test blast.
Since September, controversy has been brewing in Washington County over two quarries located on the outskirts of Fayetteville’s western city limits. Located on Hamestring Road (County Road 842) off Arkansas 16 West, the Big Red Dirt Farm and the Rogers Group are asking the county to allow them to convert the existing dirt quarry into a limestone quarry and to allow the existing 45-acre limestone quarry to expand by another 101 acres.
The quarry conversion and expansion requests have met with substantial vocal opposition from a variety of Washington County residents. Neighbors of the quarries have turned out in force at the public meetings. The Washington County planning director, Juliette Richey, reports receiving 131 letters regarding the Rogers Group expansion. Of these, 130 opposed approving the permit and one supported it.
The area of the quarries is currently zoned for residential and agricultural use. Any other uses, including heavy industrial use such as mining, must obtain a conditional use permit from the Washington County Planning Board. These two quarries were grandfathered in at their existing size and scope since they were already in existence when county zoning occurred in 2006. The controversy arose when these quarries asked to expand their size and convert from clay or red dirt to limestone mining.
Terry Sossong, vice president for the Rogers Group, cites the area’s continuing need for limestone. “Limestone is needed for all infrastructure,” he says. “Eighty to 90 percent of it is limestone — roads, foundations, you name it.”
The Big Red Dirt Farm is owned by Billy Sweetser of Sweetser Construction and consists of a 57-acre clay mining quarry that has been in operation since June 2004. The clay from this site has been estimated by the operators to be exhausted in four to seven years, at which time the land would be required by law to be reclaimed. Big Red Dirt Farm, however, applied to the Washington County Planning Board for a conditional use permit to begin mining limestone on this property; the limestone reserves are expected to last 50-75 years.
The Washington County Planning board heard Big Red Dirt Farm’s application last fall at the Sept. 18 meeting and denied the conditional use permit. Big Red Dirt Farm appealed this decision to the Washington County Quorum Court on March 26. The Quorum Court reversed the decision of the Planning Board and approved the conditional use permit. That decision is currently being appealed to the Circuit Court by a group of concerned local residents.
The other quarry, Stephen’s Red Dirt Farm or the Rogers Group Quarry, is owned by J&A Mining, John David Lindsey Development and Mark Rich. The 350 acres of land is being leased by Rogers Group, a multi-state corporation headquartered in Nashville, Tenn. and a leading producer of crushed stone and asphalt. The Rogers Group applied for a conditional use permit to expand the size of its current 45-acre limestone quarry to include 101 more acres, thus tripling its current size. The application for this permit was filed on April 6, just 11 days after Big Red Dirt Farm’s permit was approved.
Larry Walker, a member of the Washington County Planning Board gets to know Roma Gray’s horses before a test blast at the Rogers Group’s limestone quarry May 19, 2009. Gray lives near the quarry and is opposed to Rogers Group’s request to expand limestone quarrying into the Stephens Red Dirt pit seen at the top of this photo.
At the June 9, County Planning Board Meeting, Jay Edwards, an attorney representing several of the area residents, said that the Rogers Group had been blasting for limestone before it was granted a permit. Edwards contends that the Rogers Group can’t be grandfathered in because the original operation was a red-dirt mine, not a limestone quarry. Edwards said, in effect, that allowing the Rogers Group to increase and expand an operation it never got approval for in the first place would be rewarding it for not following the rules.
“This is a little embarrassing,” says board member Larry Walker. The issue was tabled until the July meeting.
A group of concerned citizens called West Fayetteville Citizens for Environmental Quality, or WFCEQ, have obtained 340 signatures opposing the expansion of quarries in residential/agricultural areas. Area farmers and equestrian facility owners have voiced concerns about the impact the quarrying may have on their livestock, water supply and livelihood. Environmentalists and conservationists oppose these quarries citing damage to air and water quality, further destruction of habitat and damage to stream ecology.
Dave Bolen, president of WFCEQ, lives immediately south of the Big Red Dirt Farm. “I am pretty much the closest person who’s put up with them all these years.” He says the most important question to him is, “why do county officials keep ruling in favor of an out-of-state corporation against the expressed wishes of the residents?”
Specific concerns of citizens regarding expansion of these mines include:
1. Health risks to humans and livestock. According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, prolonged and repeated inhalation of crystalline silica-containing dust, like that created in limestone processing, has caused silicosis, a lung disease. MSHA also states that dust containing newly broken silica particles, such as that created at crushing facilities, has been shown to be more hazardous to animals in laboratory tests than dust containing older silica particles of similar size.
In addition, chronic and acute stress effects from the noise associated with daily mining, crushing and blasting are likely to affect both humans and livestock. Blasting also increases the risk of equestrian accidents as horses often have a panicked “flight response” to loud noises. There are more than 70 horses on farms in close proximity to the proposed quarry, and three equestrian training facilities exist on Harmon, Hamestring and Harp roads.
2. Safety issues and inadequate roads. Many residents say they fear vehicular accidents because of sharing the road with so many large dump trucks. Hamstring Road is a steep, curvy, two-lane road with no shoulder or guardrails. Truck traffic peaked at about 750 trucks per day during the economic boom, but Bolen says that that number has decreased substantially.
“I have personally been forced off the road twice by dump trucks crossing the center line. I am afraid of being hurt or killed while traveling to and from work on this road,” said Roma Gray.
Both proposed quarries would put an estimated 100 to 200 extra trucks on the road, but Sossong stated at the June 9, Planning Board meeting that the County Road Department “doesn’t have an issue” with the increase in heavy equipment traffic.
3. Water quality. According to a Karst Area Sensitivity Map produced by the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, these quarries are located in an area of “extremely high” to “high” recharge sensitivity — meaning that because (among other things) karst geology systems, like that the quarries are located on, have low self-purification capabilities, nearby water is very susceptible to pollution. According to another study by the U.S. Geological Survey, quarrying can directly change the routes of surface and ground water; sinkholes caused by quarrying can intercept water flow and cause property damage; and groundwater pumped from quarries can drain streams, ponds, wetlands and wells.
4. Environmental considerations. The location of these quarries is especially troublesome, not only because of the dense residential concentration around them — more than 7,000 residents within a two-mile radius — nor the close proximity to the Fayetteville city limits (at places, less than 500 feet), but also the unique green valley that stands to be damaged. These quarries are located in an area adjacent to springs, caves, streams and Hamestring Creek, which form a part of the Illinois River watershed. The area is part of an existing green corridor that connects Fayetteville to Wedington Woods and on to the Ozark National Forest. According to the Fayetteville Natural Heritage Association, this corridor is ranked as a high-priority conservation area.
5. Noise. Fayetteville Ward 4 aldermen Sarah Lewis and Shirley Lucas are in the process of developing an ordinance that would place limits on the activities of these mines. Because the quarries are within one mile of the city limits, the city has the ability to regulate their activities if they are considered a nuisance. Lewis says the ordinance would limit the things that make the quarries a nuisance, such as by limiting the hours that blasting can occur and mandating that the trucks be covered. “We’re not trying to put anyone out of business,” Lewis said. “We’re really trying to work with neighbors, trying to come to a conclusion that’s livable for everyone.”
Washington County Justice of the Peace Candy Clark is also working on legislation to limit operations like these. Clark is bringing an ordinance before the Quorum Court stating that no business operating under a conditional use permit that is within two miles of an incorporated city’s limits — such as these quarries — would be allowed to expand.
Sossong contends that there are a lot of citizens who would benefit from his mining operation, calling them “the silent majority.” He reports that his mining operation has created three new jobs, and once it is up and running, will employ six to nine more people as equipment operators, plant operators and supervisors. When asked why he thinks so many are opposed to his proposed expansion, he says, “Fear of the unknown. They’re not sure, but we’ve brought a lot of facts to the process.”
Area resident Michael Luna disagrees. “It’s not fear of the unknown,” he says. “Rather, it’s the certainty of the nightmare we’ve already been living with.”
Roma Gray of West Fayetteville Citizens for Environmental Quality contributed information for this story.