Quarry opponents undaunted
- Published: August 23, 2018
A few miles north of Yellow Springs, where the fight over a proposed limestone quarry has been brewing for more than a year, Mike Verbillion recently surveyed the fields surrounding his property.
“It’s all been farmland forever,” Verbillion said, looking out over hundreds of acres of land slated for mining.
For Verbillion, who lives on a 42-acre farm on Hagan Road that’s been in his family since the 1870s, it’s hard to imagine the quiet interrupted by sounds of rock-blasting explosives, the dozens of trucks daily barreling down country roads, or the changes to local waterways and aquifers that the mine might cause.
“I’m not against mining, but I’m against mining that affects communities and is going to affect them for years ahead,” he said.
Verbillion is part of a group of area residents opposing the quarry who were delivered a setback in late July, when their appeal of the company’s mining permit was denied.
But their efforts were also bolstered this spring, when the Ohio EPA verified four wetlands close to the proposed mine and asked for more information from the company on how it might impact wetlands or waterways.
Citizens Against Mining, or CAM, had appealed a decision the Ohio Department of Natural Resources made last year allowing Enon Sand and Gravel to modify and combine its mining permits in Mad River Township. Those permitting changes by ODNR’s Office of Mineral Resources Management added hundreds of acres to the permit, increased the depth of mining, allowed dewatering and authorized a new plan for blasting at the site.
Representatives for CAM testified before the commission that quarry operations could threaten the water supply of some 200 residences and farms in the area — who are all on private wells — as well as harm local stream quality and wetlands. But the Ohio Reclamation Commission upheld the ODNR permit, contending that state law protects neighboring properties from being impacted by mining operations.
CAM has until Aug. 24 to appeal the decision in common pleas court. They have not yet decided if they will do so.
In a statement to the News, ODNR spokesperson Eric Heis summarized the commission’s decision. He declined to answer more specific questions.
“The Reclamation Commission’s decision was based on current Ohio law and evidence presented at the hearing. ODNR has no further comment,” Heis wrote.
Reached by phone this week, Enon Sand and Gravel CEO, Dennis Garrison, agreed to answer questions via email but did not do so by press time.
CAM members said this week they were disappointed by the decision, yet remain hopeful they will stop the quarry from opening by other means.
Specifically, a federal court case over zoning is still pending, and the EPA has yet to grant a permit for the company to discharge its mining wastewater and other water from the site. As a result, mining has not yet begun.
“This has always been a three-pronged battle,” explained CAM board member and area resident Kyle Peterson, referring to the zoning issue and the two state permits. Still, the recent reclamation commission decision was a disappointment, he said.
“We disagreed with the decision,” Peterson said. “We thought we had a strong case.”
Mining plan elicits concerns
Under the mining plan filed last year by Enon Sand and Gravel with the state, the company intends to mine for limestone in two phases on sites west of South Tecumseh Road and both south and north of Fairfield Pike, an area that starts, on the southern end, about two miles north of Yellow Springs and ends at Greenon High School just outside of Enon.
As it stands, the company is now permitted to mine for limestone at depths of up to 141 feet, or about 14 stories deep, use explosives to blast away rock and pump water from the aquifer to access the limestone below in a process known as dewatering. They still need to receive an Ohio EPA permit to discharge water into area streams and to resolve the zoning issue.
Area residents organized as CAM – Mad River Township after they found out about the mining plans in early 2017, and have fought the project due to concerns about negative impacts to wildlife, local surface water quality, private wells, property values and residents’ way of life. They have also raised more than $50,000 to cover legal expenses and help from various experts, according to CAM members this week.
Many villagers have also become involved in the cause to halt the mine, even though the proposed quarry is located outside of village limits in the Mad River watershed of the Great Miami River and does not appear to involve the aquifer that provides Yellow Springs’ drinking water.
The Tecumseh Land Trust, for example, has testified against the mine as it might be a threat to groundwater in the area. TLT holds conservation easements on 4,377 acres within three miles of the mine, the News has reported.
EPA designates wetlands
Some good news for CAM came in May when the Ohio EPA designated four wetlands in close proximity to the proposed quarry.
At the time, the EPA also requested additional documentation from Enon Sand and Gravel on how mining might impact the wetlands, as well as Mud Run Creek and its tributaries, and to consider the potential presence of karst formations at or near the proposed mine.
Those formations, caused by the dissolution of soluable rocks, could affect well drawdown models.
On a farm along Garrison Road owned by the Vanderglas family, a fen extends for more than two acres just 200 feet from the property where the company plans to begin mining.
The wetland was determined to be a fen because it is fed by groundwater, and along with several seeps and springs, is a host to a diversity of plant life, including some endangered or threatened species, according to the EPA’s report. Because of these features, the EPA classified it as a Category 3 wetland, or a “very high quality wetland,” the state’s highest designation. Just up the road, another Category 3 wetland was designated on the property owned by CAM member Carol Culbertson.
Jon Vanderglas, who grew up on the Garrison Road farm and still lives there, questioned why the wetland should allowed to be destroyed by the quarry operation.
“It would be a shame,” he said. “Why would you destroy something that filters water and prevents floods?”
Vanderglas also suspects that the state law requiring mining companies to address impacts of mining on area water will not restore his wetland once the water is depleted.
“There’s no way they can replace the same quality and quantity of water,” he said.
Reached for comment this week, Dina Pierce, spokesperson for the Ohio EPA’s Southwest District, wrote in an email that the agency is in the process of reviewing the permit and has no estimate of when it might be complete.
The EPA is still working through the comments it received at the hearing earlier this year, attended by around 300 citizens, Pierce wrote. The agency is also still waiting on supplemental information from Enon Sand and Gravel related to the wetlands, she confirmed.
Previously, Pierce told the News that Ohio EPA did not frequently deny permits because companies tend to “drop or revise” applications that don’t meet the Ohio Revised Criteria prior to them making a decision.
Federal suit continues
Even if the Ohio EPA permits the company, a pending zoning issue may yet halt plans for the mine.
Last year Clark County officials notified Enon Sand and Gravel that the company is required to get a conditional use permit from the county board of zoning appeals before starting work. On the day mining permits were approved by the state, the company sued Clark County Commissioners and the county’s zoning administrator in federal court, contending county permits aren’t required. No hearing has been scheduled for the case, docketed in southern Ohio’s U.S. district court.
If a conditional use permit for mining were to come before the local Clark County Board of Zoning Appeals, CAM members are prepared to testify against it, they said this week.
But if Enon Sand and Gravel wins the suit, they could bypass a hearing entirely. In bringing the suit, Enon Sand and Gravel seeks to “protect its constitutional right to continue its prior non-conforming uses of the property,” the CEO, Garrison, previously wrote to the News.
But according to Clark County Commissioner Rick Lohnes, the company needs to apply to the county to expand its mining operations because it is planning to mine in areas that haven’t been mined in the past and whose character has changed significantly since the state permits were issued in 1977, the News has reported.
Kathleen Matthews, who lives in the Echo Hills subdivision adjacent to Enon Sand and Gravel’s property, recently observed the residential nature of the area around the quarry, with much of the development taking place in the last few decades.
“It’s an island of quarry surrounded by houses,” she said.
Born and raised in Baltimore, Md., Matthews moved to the country 14 years ago for the peace and quiet. Along with other neighbors interviewed this week, Matthews, a retired nurse practitioner, said she had no idea that the land might be mined, and would not have moved to the area had she known.
“We all knew about the 21 acres that had been mined, but no one foresaw that what was farmland would be a quarry. That’s what’s upset us the most,” Matthews said.
After reviewing 169 exhibits and interviewing 15 witnesses over four days of testimony this spring, the Ohio Reclamation Commission decided in favor of ODNR, concluding that the mining permit for Enon Sand and Gravel was properly granted.
“The Commission finds that Enon has successfully complied with all statutory requirements,” associated with the permits, according to the commission’s report.
Reflecting on the decision, CAM members this week identified several aspects of the project they believe the commission did not adequately consider.
According to Peterson, the way that local groundwater supplies, and thus private wells, will be impacted by the quarry is still unclear. Specifically, CAM had contended that karst formations in the geology might increase the drawdown from local wells from dewatering.
“When you have a heavy concentration of karst bedrock and water moving through it quickly, the drawdown from the surrounding wells happens at a much faster rate,” said Peterson, a marketing professional who studies geology as a hobby. The Ohio EPA recently documented many karst features on the adjacent Vanderglas property, for example.
However, the commission found that while evidence showed karst conditions do exist in Clark County, there was no evidence that there are any located in the area the company studied to determine drawdown impacts.
The commission dismissed CAM’s concerns around groundwater impacts because Ohio law requires that mine operators replace water supplies affected by mining. However, neighbors are not relieved by those regulations, which require residents to prove that it was mining that affected their wells, and then give the company 72 hours to provide an emergency water source and 28 days for a permanent water source.
“Nobody trusts [those laws] because you have to prove that your well was dewatered because of the quarry,” Peterson said.
CAM members also pointed to the make-up of the seven-member Reclamation Commission, which currently consists of three representatives from the mineral extraction industry, two from agriculture and one each from earth grading and the public.
Verbillion, who was party to the appeal and testified during the hearing, said he was disheartened because he felt that the commission did not represent the interests of homeowners.
“It was very disheartening to go there and think, ‘They work for me,’ and it’s not the case,” he said.
Matthews, who watched the hearing, said she came to the realization that the laws are written in ways that protect business interests over that of residents. She has calculated that over the lifetime of the mine, Enon Sand and Gravel may reap hundreds of millions in profits, which seems to play a role in how laws are written.
“I feel betrayed by our state, by the laws and by the ODNR,” Matthews said. “The deck is stacked against us.”
After a walk at sunset through his fen this week, Vanderglas said that despite the ODNR permit being upheld, he was not yet ready to give up.
“I still have hope. I knew there would be some disappointments.”