An epic hearing over a proposed granite mine leads to a pivotal vote by Guilford County Commissioners

An epic hearing over a proposed granite mine leads to a pivotal vote by Guilford County Commissioners

- in Environment, Top Story
Viewed on an overhead screen, Kevin Cornell shows Guilford County Commissioners the rocks ejected from a nearby mine that landed in his yard and in his house. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

[Click here to read yesterday’s in-depth story about the rural community of Pleasant Garden and their fight against a proposed granite mine.]

Kevin Cornell reached into a box and hoisted a rock the size of a toddler’s head and placed it on the podium. “There was an explosion and a shockwave and rocks rained down,” explained Cornell, who lives across the road from a Martin Marietta quarry.

The stone before him had ejected from the quarry and flown 1,600 feet before tearing through some branches and landing in his yard.

He then produced a second rock, roughly the same size as the first one, and placed it on the podium. “This one went through my roof and landed on my kitchen floor,” he told the Guilford County Commissioners. “It could have been not just deadly, but devastating.”

He left the podium and one of at least six security officers patrolling the meeting, most of them armed, returned the rocks to the box and ferreted them away.

For nearly three hours, a packed house of 300-plus at a tense Guilford County Commissioners meeting last night listened to opponents of a proposed granite quarry near Pleasant Garden square off against representatives of Lehigh Hanson, the aggregate company that wants to build it.

Each side implored the eight county commissioners — the ninth, Alan Branson, recused himself because he works in the trucking industry hauling stone — to vote their way: to either rezone the property to allow granite mining or to leave the current zoning intact.

More than 300 people attended a meeting of the Guilford County Commissioners, most of them to oppose a proposed granite quarry near Pleasant Garden. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The property in question, 350 acres that was originally slated to be a clay mine, lies near several farms, at least one, 100 years old. All of the nearby residents rely on wells for their water. Unlike clay mining, quarrying granite, the proposed new use for the land, entails blasting. And blasting can change the path of groundwater. And when excavators eventually dig deeply enough in the proposed 17-acre pit, it will fill with water, which then must be sucked out. Removing the water forms a “cone of depression,” in the aquifer, and can dry up nearby wells.

Could the wells run dry? Very unlikely, said a hydrogeologist hired by Lehigh Hanson. Yes, quite likely, said a hydrogeologist for the opposition.

Were nearby streams enough to buffer the wells from the mining operation? Yes, said Lehigh Hanson. And in the rare event a resident’s well would run dry, Lehigh would drill a new one for free.

No, said the opposing hydrogeologist. “All but one of those streams is intermittent” — meaning sometimes they function as little more than ditches. “I was out there yesterday and they were dry as a bone.”

The noise, the trucks — 287 trips a day — traveling on two-land roads where school buses and tractors are the norm: This was nothing to worry about, Lehigh Hanson’s attorney, Tom Terrell, assured the commissioners.

Besides, residents living near other quarries have never complained. “Have you ever received one phone call?” Terrell asked the commission, and then answered his own question. “No.”

Terrell said that the blasting and the warning sirens are so benign that dogs and cats at an animal shelter located near a quarry slept right through the noise. (He did not explain that animal shelters, filled with the sound of dogs whimpering and barking, are very noisy places.)

A short parade of Lehigh Hanson employees, who told the commission they had come voluntarily, praised the company for its safety record. A traffic analyst hired by the company claimed that the extra traffic would pose no extra danger on nearby two-lane highways — although he omitted information about the country roads.

Pleasant Garden residents unleashed their appeals. They wondered about effects of microscopic silica dust — which can cause respiratory disease, and in cases of chronic exposure, cancer — on their health. “My children love to play outside,” said Kimbie Hall, whose home is less than a half-mile from the proposed quarry. “What about them when you are no longer on this board? I can’t afford to sue Lehigh Hanson.”

In the final hour, the commissioners began their interrogation. “How can your engineer say that there is no more danger on the road from 287 trips a day,” asked Commissioner Skip Alston. “That doesn’t sound possible.”

“Every extra vehicle on the road is a safety issue,” Terrell replied. “That doesn’t stop us as a country from bringing in business and industry.”

County staff could not assure the commission that residents’ wells would be unaffected. In fact, wells northwest of the quarry were at particular risk. “We just don’t know until they start digging,” said Joe Johnson, a soil scientist on staff.

Guilford County Commissioners Carlvena Foster, Kay Cashion and Jeff Phillips. Cashion received a fake rock from a 4-year-old boy who asked her to vote against the proposed granite quarry. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

As the time for the decision neared, the mood in the room intensified. Then one by one, each commissioner signaled how they would vote.

“I’ve been neutral,” said commissioner Hank Henning. “But hearing staff speak tonight — there’s no walking this back.”

Commissioner Kay Cashion had traveled the property earlier in the week and traveled the area. “It’s beautiful and peaceful out there,” said Cashion, who grew up on a farm.”

She then produced a fake rock that a 4-year-old boy named John John had sent her. It was among the 108 letters she had received from people asking her to oppose the mine. “He and his buddies growing up there are most likely to be affected,” Cashion said, setting the fake rock on the dais. “If I vote for this rezoning, I’m guaranteeing that it’s safe. I have to conclude this is incompatible.”

The vote was taken. The tally appeared on a screen in the chambers: 8-0 against the rezone. The crowd erupted, cheering, hugging and crying.

Photo: Lisa Sorg