PW exclusive: Proposal for massive Caswell County granite mine fires up locals

By: - November 4, 2019 1:29 pm
Roxboro Lake lies about a quarter-mile from the property line of a proposed quarry and concrete/asphalt plant in southeastern Caswell County. The lake is a supplemental drinking water supply for the City of Roxboro. Eagles nest nearby. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Mine would cover 426 acres to depths as great as 550 feet, impact groundwater and, possibly, nearby drinking water sources

On the morning of Halloween, Randy Hester shifted the gears of his rugged pickup truck into four-wheel drive and headed down a knobby hill toward Roxboro Lake. Hester’s 200-acre farm, which abuts the shoreline, has been in his family for 10 generations, and he knows every fold and pleat in the landscape. 

He stopped the truck, scaled a gate, traipsed through loose understory, and tiptoed across the muddy roof of a beaver lodge to the edge of the lake. Tornadoes were in the forecast. Already 80 degrees, the air near the ground felt as hot and thick as fondue. 

Across the water and above the forest cut a figure. Sharp-winged with a snowy head and tail, it soared, buoyed by the thermals.

“There’s an eagle!” Hester exclaimed. 

Eagles and turkeys, deer and bear: They all live in this wild corner of southeastern Caswell County that is snaked with creeks and pockmarked by rock. Its remoteness has long beckoned farmers, homesteaders, and solace-seekers. More recently, though, the land has lured those who want to pick its pockets of granite.

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Public Hearing on Carolina Sunrock mining permit application Monday, Nov. 4 Caswell County Commissioners Meeting Room 144 Court Square, Yanceyville

Carolina Sunrock, a mining company based in Raleigh,  applied to the state to construct a quarry and concrete/asphalt distribution center on 630 acres in Prospect Hill, an unincorporated area near the intersection of Caswell, Person and Orange counties. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is holding a public meeting tonight to receive comments on the proposal.

With its blasting, dust, noise and truck traffic, mining is a dirty and disruptive business. Although mines’ spoils are necessary to build roads, pave parking lots and fill potholes, very few people welcome them into their community. But the Carolina Sunrock proposal poses particular threats to the drinking water in Prospect Hill, and even Roxboro, 14 miles away.

According to the company’s permit application, the Prospect Hill mine would discharge its treated, but by no means clean, stormwater into nearby streams. The operation would lie just 1,000 feet from South Hyco Creek, the headwaters for Roxboro Lake, the supplemental drinking water supply for the town of Roxboro.

The operation would also guzzle 3 million gallons of water per day, potentially siphoning off groundwater that feeds the 80 nearby private drinking water wells, wetlands, creeks and Roxboro Lake.

At public meetings, Carolina Sunrock representatives tried to assure community members it would adhere to all federal and state environmental regulations. But at one of its other mines in North Carolina — Kittrell in Vance County — Carolina Sunrock has not always complied with the law. Its operations have, on occasion, illegally sullied sensitive waterways and filled in parts of wetlands. In some cases, the company asked regulators for forgiveness rather than permission.

Hester watched the eagle until it vanished beyond a menace of dark clouds. A kingfisher chattered as it skimmed the water. “I know we need roads,” Hester said. “But why a quarry here?”



Looking northeast, this acreage along Wrenn Road is proposed for a granite quarry operated by Carolina Sunrock. The land previously was used for farming, timber and hunting. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The Halloween storms ushered in cold, clear weather. From a ridge on Wrenn Road, it’s possible to see for miles across the hilly terrain that is proposed for the quarry and concrete plant. Gunfire — hunters — can be heard in the distance. In one tree, denuded of its leaves and branches, a skeletal deer blind had been abandoned.

In the past, the commercial value of the land depended on what grew there. Over the years, it has been farmed and timbered, and the pines, maples, oaks and scrub are in various stages of regrowth. But now the land’s worth, at least to Carolina Sunrock, lies beneath the surface: granite.

The land is not zoned, so there are no formal county restrictions on how it can be developed. If DEQ approves Carolina Sunrock’s application, the company could buy or lease the property from the Koury family, which made its fortune in Carolina Hosiery.

Policy Watch emailed a list of questions to Scott Martino, Carolina Sunrock’s manager of environmental compliance, on Oct. 31. He did not answer those questions by deadline, Nov. 4, and instead directed Policy Watch to the company’s filings with DEQ.

Of the 630 acres, Carolina Sunrock plans to “disturb” 426. The average depth of the mine, according to the company’s application, will be 70 feet, roughly seven stories. But at its maximum, a combinations of explosives and heavy machinery will gnaw pits as deep as 550 feet — deep enough to fit Raleigh’s Wells Fargo Tower inside with room to spare.

A map of the proposed 630-acre site. More than 420 acres of the property will be “disturbed” by the mining. Hillsborough is 14 miles south; Roxboro lies 17 miles east. (Map: DEQ)

To nearby residents, there is an even more valuable resource below the land: water.

Groundwater and surface water — Sugar Tree Creek and other tributaries run through the property — are both sources of drinking water. Fifty residents live within 1,000 feet of the proposed quarry and another 70 reside within a mile. From the northeast corner of the proposed quarry to Roxboro Lake is just 871 feet. These sensitive features are why the state has classified the creeks and streams as “WS-II, High Quality Waters.”

It’s not uncommon for quarries to be built near waterways. In Kittrell, in Vance County, Carolina Sunrock operates a smaller operation near the Tar River. However, the magnitude of the proposed Prospect Hill operation and its proximity to drinking water supplies have generated intense opposition from the community — and should require additional scrutiny from state regulators.

DEQ spokeswoman Christy Simmons said the region “does not have other examples of mines/quarries of this size” located in areas with this classification of high quality waters. 

How these drinking water supplies will fare from the intensive mining is unknown. Carolina Sunrock plans to discharge storm water and “process water” — groundwater mixed with sediment from the pits — from 41 basins into the creeks. According to its permit application, the company also will store up to 192,000 gallons of used oil, fuel and other chemicals in 14 tanks on the property.

State rules limit industrial wastewater and stormwater in these types of watersheds, Simmons said, and “those limitations will be considered as the application is reviewed.”

None of the Caswell County Commissioners responded to emails from Policy Watch, but a City of Roxboro spokeswoman told Policy Watch that if the quarry is constructed and operated as detailed in the company’s filings with the state, then the “City of Roxboro does not foresee any impacts to our secondary drinking water supply.”

City officials have not submitted public comments on the plan, the spokeswoman said, but “will remain vigilant in monitoring the situation. If needed, we will act to protect the integrity of the water supply.”

The company also says it will install 100-foot buffers and silt fences to protect the major creeks from sediment. But buffers, while critical, aren’t foolproof, and could be insufficient for such an intensive operation. Nor do buffers solve the groundwater problem. 

Carolina Sunrock’s own groundwater modeling, based on the use of 3 million gallons per day, shows the water table will be lowered not only within the mine but the surrounding area. Modeling indicates a “cone of depression” in the pits — caused by the intense pumping from the aquifer — will extend from 728 to 1,300 feet.

Mark Chandler is a licensed professional geologist who lives in Prospect Hill near the northern shore of Roxboro Lake. He and a colleague from Summit Envirosolutions reviewed a hydro-geological study commissioned by Carolina Sunrock. 

In his public comments, Chandler wrote that the review pinpointed several inadequacies in the original study. This includes the failure to re-sample groundwater for the presence of mercury after initial results showed elevated levels, possibly because of lab contamination. Nor was there testing for radium, which is naturally occurring in granite deposits. 

Groundwater and surface water are intricately interconnected. Chandler cited a US Geological Survey publication noting that quarrying “can directly change the course of surface water.” When quarries are pumped, groundwater is diverted away from streams and drain nearby ponds and wetlands — of which there are least a half dozen on the property. Blasting can change the flow of groundwater, as well as that in creeks and streams.

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“For the protection of the groundwater supply, for the families that rely on private water supply wells, and for the protection of Sugar Tree Creek and Lake Roxboro, we ask that you act to deny the mining permit for this proposed quarry at this time,” Chandler wrote.

“I’ve been a mess about this all week,” said Amy McCauley, who lives on Tom Bowes Road. Her well is 1,500 feet from the quarry’s property line, just beyond the 1,100-foot boundary that the company used to notify residents of its plan.

The water supply here can be dicey. McCauley’s well is relatively shallow, 142 feet, because at 500 feet, the drillers hit bedrock. Her backyard meets the shore of Roxboro Lake. Currently, her dock is on dry land. “Some years there is plenty of water,” she said. “And then when Roxboro needs water and opens the spillway, you can see the lake drop before your very eyes.”

From her home, McCauley operates a licensed care center for people with disabilities. She’s also concerned about air pollution — her teenage son has asthma — and noise that could bother her clients.“I care about the quality of life,” McCauley said. She’s lived here for 15 years and is invested, not just financially, but emotionally in a sense of place. “I didn’t plan to be here just temporarily.”

Carolina Sunrock has been in the aggregate business — stone, rock, quarries, concrete and asphalt — for nearly 70 years. Since expanding from New York to North Carolina in 1985, the company has been awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in government and private contracts to build and resurface roads, pave parking lots and sell concrete and asphalt. It operates eight facilities in central North Carolina.

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The state’s Division of Energy, Mining and Land Resources oversees more than 760 mines in North Carolina. However, the division is not known for its heavy-handedness. From 2012 to 2017, DEMLR has issued just 12 Notices of Violation. 

One of those was assessed to Carolina Sunrock. 

In 2010, the company’s 81-acre facility in Kittrell, which sits near the Tar River off U.S. Highway 1, was cited for illegally depositing sediment into waterways. The operation deposited up to a foot of dirt into a stream channel and affected nearly an acre of wetlands and 75 feet of stream,  plus 2,000 square feet of buffers.

DEMLR required the company to repair the damage, which included removing the sediment using “hand labor” because of the sensitivity of the damaged areas.

Four years prior, in 2006, Carolina Sunrock applied for an “after-the-fact” permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, again for its Kittrell plant. Operations had affected 1.5 acres of wetlands and 62 linear feet near the Tar River. In a letter to the company, the Corps noted that the Tar River is a habitat for endangered and threatened mussels. “The applicant” — Carolina Sunrock — was aware of the presence of these species, the Corps wrote, because state wildlife officials “specifically requested” that the company “avoid wetland and steam impacts in future mine expansion.”

Carolina Sunrock filed for a discharge permit at the Prospect Hill site in February 2018. As recently as July 2019, the company asked state regulators to grant it a “dormant” status after the project was placed on hold “indefinitely.” But within a month of its email to DEQ, Carolina Sunrock decided to proceed. Martino of Sunrock did not answer questions from Policy Watch about why the company changed course.

The state could deny Carolina Sunrock’s application if it finds that the operation would violate any of seven criteria. That includes an “unduly adverse effects on potable groundwater supplies, wildlife, or fresh water” or a “direct and substantial physical hazard to public health and safety.”

Randy Hester’s father is among the dozens of family members buried under a copse of maple trees. “Steward the land,” reads the tombstone. “That’s what my dad taught me,” Hester said. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

If DEQ does approve the permit, residents will have fewer opportunities for recourse. State lawmakers have made it more difficult for concerned residents to halt an operation once it receives a permit. As of 2017, all existing mining permits and any newly issued mining permits are to be issued for the life of the site or lease term, usually 50 years.

In geological time, a half-century is a blip. But for long-time residents of Prospect Hill, the quarry could outlast them. At his family cemetery, Randy Hester pointed to a copse of red maples, planted by his ancestors, and his father’s grave, etched with the words “Steward the Land.”

“That’s what he taught me,” Hester said.

Hester headed home in his truck, maneuvering the switchbacks that run near the proposed site. Suddenly, he hit the brakes. “Are those turkeys?” Yes, a dozen wild turkeys had gathered in a field, gleaning the last of a crop.

“If beauty counted for something,” Hester said,  “we’d have a chance.”

Behind his father’s grave in the family cemetery, Hester shows where he and his wife will be buried someday. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.