After living all over North Carolina, Terry and Joyce Long finally came home.
In 2020, they bought a tract of land in Hamptonville adjacent to property that had been in Joyce’s family for five generations. Joyce grew up in this Yadkin County town of just 6,100 people, and now she and her husband, Terry, could raise their four children here, a quiet, rural idyll of forests and farms and night skies that light up with stars.
A year ago, the Longs moved into a new house at the end of Stella Road. Their dreams included a small farm with some horses, a few goats. The Longs built a small campsite for their kids down by the creek, where they could wade, watch minnows and collect rocks.
“We were looking for a refuge so our children could have a secluded, safe place to grow up,” said the Rev. Terry Long, who earned a doctoral degree in divinity. “I’m a pastor so I know the brokenness in the world.”
Shortly after the Longs moved into their home, and unbeknownst to them, a man named Jack Mitchell was also interested in Hamptonville, not for the beauty above ground, but for the money to be made beneath it.
A little more than 1,000 feet from the Long’s property — the equivalent of two city blocks — Mitchell plans to build Three Oaks Quarry, a behemoth aggregate mine. If constructed, the mine would lie just 800 feet from West Yadkin Elementary School.
Mitchell kept his intentions secret for months, saying his company, Synergy Materials, needed to first conduct test borings to determine if the site was viable.
Earlier this month, Mitchell sent a letter to nearby property owners disclosing his intentions, but many neighbors say they don’t trust him. Synergy has a record of spills and accidents at mines in other states. Reported injuries at another Mitchell-owned mine in Wisconsin were three to six times the national rate. And last year, Mitchell allegedly asked to rent office space from a Hamptonville resident but, as Policy Watch reported, agreed to tell her why only if she signed a non-disclosure agreement. The resident told Policy Watch she refused to sign.
Mitchell’s recent letter to neighbors and the mine’s website, contains pages of benign-sounding and at times, even misleading language to assuage the community’s concerns about noise, potential harm to drinking water supplies, as well as traffic.
For instance, Mitchell made the highly questionable claim that the NC Department of Environmental Quality has set “stringent regulations” for mines. At a legal hearing last fall about a controversial mine in Snow Camp, however, lawyers representing DEQ acknowledged in open court that the state Mining Act is flawed — and that it was “written by Martin Marietta,” a large quarrying company.
The Yadkin County mining ordinance is even weaker than state regulations. It allows a mine to be built as close as 500 feet from a school, church, hospital or home. A 50-foot buffer of trees or shrubs is all that’s required.
“We love it here. We’re invested in our community,” Joyce Long said. “It’s really devastating. We’re going to have to be making some big decisions.”
A big, loud and dirty operation
In terms of acreage and neighborhood, no two mines are the same. However, they do have commonalities: blasting, noise, dust and trucks.
The proposed Three Oaks Quarry would be built on property owned by former State Rep. Wilma Sherrill — a Republican who once represented Buncombe County. Mitchell’s company is under contract to buy 498 acres. Of those, 322 would be devoted to mining, including interior roads. The pit itself would encompass a little more than 61 acres.
The remaining 176 acres would be “kept as buffer or used for other purposes, such as future homes,” Mitchell’s letter reads. The document does not specify the width of the buffer, but Mitchell told Policy Watch that it will vary.
By comparison, the Snow Camp mine, owned by Alamance Aggregate, lies on 300 acres with a pit size of 28 acres — 45% smaller than the one planned for Hamptonville. The Snow Camp operation began late last year and is sending rock to the Randolph County megasite, the future home of the Toyota plant. Since then, residents’ concerns have been realized: Heavy trucks have carved large potholes in the road; clouds of dust have blown into the neighborhood. More than 100 truck trips occurred over two hours on a recent weekday morning. Blasting has occurred roughly once a week. A siren sounds first to alert the neighborhood and onsite workers. A minute later, a brief explosion occurs. Earlier this month, Alamance Aggregate conducted a blast that sent waves of energy through the feet of bystanders three-tenths of a mile away.
In Hamptonville blasting would occur “approximately three times a month, depending on market demand,” the letter reads, “and always during the day when many people are away at work.” Stay-at-home parents, retirees and telecommuters in Hamptonville could notice the blast, Mitchell said, the extent of which would depend on the distance from the mine.
The Longs adopted two of their children who were in foster care. They have special needs, Joyce said, “and don’t do well with loud noises.”
It’s unclear how blasting will affect West Yadkin Elementary School. More than 500 students in grades pre-K through 6 attend West Yadkin, including the grandchildren of school board member Tim Weatherman. His daughter also teaches there. “We’re against it,” Weatherman said at a community meeting last week, which he attended with two other board members.
Joyce Long attended West Yadkin, which is just around the corner from her family’s house, and her children do, too. At home, at school, Long’s children will always be near the mine.
Air, water and health concerns; more (and more dangerous) traffic
By their nature, quarries kick up dust. Mitchell’s letter states that the “materials being quarried are not injurious to human health, and they surround you everywhere, every day.” The degree of harm though, depends on the amount and type of dust, as well as the level of exposure.
Particulate matter, especially microscopic types known as PM 2.5, burrow deep into the lungs and can cause or worsen asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Mitchell told Policy Watch the Three Oaks Quarry would not mine silica, which when chronically inhaled, can irreparably injure the lungs. The company is after rock, including granite, for road-building and other construction uses. Asked about the possibility that granite mining could release naturally occurring radon, Mitchell referred Policy Watch to scientists who will attend a public meeting on March 23.
DEQ does regulate “fugitive dust” — dust that leaves the property boundary — by requiring routine watering. However, DEQ does not have inspectors onsite, and relies on citizen complaints to regulate the emissions. Fugitive dust was leaving the Snow Camp mine two weeks ago, and floated into the windows of a car on an adjacent road.
Many neighbors of the proposed mine are also concerned about drinking water supplies. The headwaters of Lake Hampton, designated by the county as a future public water supply, are on the proposed mining property. If the proposal clears local hurdles and reaches the state level, it’s likely the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will also have a say-so in the permitting.
Private well owners near the mine rely on groundwater. When mines are excavated they can fill with groundwater, which has to be pumped out in order to reach the rock. The force of the pumping can alter the flow of groundwater or decrease the levels in private wells.
Some well levels could “possibly have a temporary drop” the letter reads, but Mitchell told Policy Watch that if a private well is permanently affected, his company would pay to drill a deeper one. His letter, though, cited without evidence that “your wells are more vulnerable to your neighbors using water for animals or watering a garden or your pump wearing out from age than from this mine.”
A hydrogeologist testified in the Snow Camp permit case that wells within 1,500 feet of a mine are the most vulnerable to a drop in levels, but those as far as 2,000 feet can be affected. The Longs’ well is within that zone —1,000 feet away.
Three Oaks Quarry would add traffic to Highway 21, roughly 272 truck trips per day, Mitchell said. That’s defined as one truck arriving empty and the same truck transporting the rock to its destination.
Mitchell’s letter says the company used national statistics to show the number of truck trips equals that taken by residents of just 27 homes. However, a minivan carrying kids is not the same as a dump truck hauling 14 tons of rock. Mitchell told Policy Watch that the dump truck is not more dangerous than the minivan. “Both would have licensed, professional drivers,” he said.
But accidents happen, even among licensed, professional drivers. And the impact of a 26-ton dump truck full of stone hitting an object is greater than that of a two-ton SUV full of people. (Starmount High School students often drive Highway 21; their inexperience behind the wheel adds to the highway’s risks.)
Highway 21 is already congested. When Interstate 77 backs up because of accidents or construction — a common occurrence — traffic is diverted to Highway 21. Carolyn Procter, who lives on a side road that adjoins the highway, said the driver of a semi-truck recently mishandled a sharp curve and went off the road. “This curve has been an issue all of my life,” said Procter, who is 75.
Meager community benefits?
Mitchell’s letter emphasizes the additional tax revenue the mine will generate for the county. Currently, the property has an agricultural exemption, which decreases the tax rate. For example, the Sherrills paid roughly $1,364 in taxes last year on 132 acres of proposed mining property. By comparison, Vulcan, which owns a 146-acre mine in Yadkin County, paid $6,200, according to tax records.
However, mines that sell material to contractors or subcontractors of the state Department of Transportation are exempt from sales tax, according to state law. The county will not collect monies from those sales.
Ryan Crater lives on Three Oaks Road, which dead-ends at the mining property line. “I’m not opposed to progress,” Crater said. “But I feel like I’m being invaded.”
Crater teaches engineering to high school students in Winston-Salem. Each semester he shows a movie called “The Last Mountain,” about the environmental harm of mountaintop coal mining.
“I never thought in a million years I’d be fighting a mine,” Crater said. “It’s not coal, but it’s rock. The urgency of the hour is here.”
Mines spur controversy in several NC locales
Residents of Prospect Hill have filed a contested case hearing against the Division of Energy, Mining and Land Resources over its approval of aggregate mine in rural southeastern Caswell County. Carolina Sunrock is the mine operator. The hearing is scheduled for the week of June 27 before a judge in the Office of Administrative Hearings.
Carolina Sunrock has also sued dozens of residents in Prospect Hill and Anderson Township, a community of color on the Caswell-Alamance county line. The mining company claimed that local residents’ public concerns violated its vested rights to build a mine and two asphalt plants. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice is representing the Thomas-Day Caswell Holt branch of the NAACP and members of their leadership; SCSJ recently petitioned the Caswell Superior Court to dismiss Carolina Sunrock’s lawsuit on First Amendment grounds.
In a rare move, DEMLR denied a mining application for Wake Stone, which wanted to expand their operations near Umstead State Park in Raleigh. The company has indicated it will request a contested case hearing.
Snow Camp residents contested the mining permit for Alamance Aggregate, and after a week of court proceedings, reached a settlement with the company. The terms are confidential, but there are additional protections for drinking water wells. However, neighbors of the mine are now in a dispute with county officials. The planning department has allowed the company to mine without an operating permit, in deference to the state, but out of line with local ordinances.