Snow Camp residents claim small, but important victory in fight over Alamance Aggregates mine

By: - November 13, 2021 10:26 am
(Mine map from DEQ files; annotations Lisa Sorg)

Court testimony revealed how the Mining Act favors industry.





During the last two weeks of September, Alamance Aggregates began blasting holes in the earth in the quiet community of Snow Camp. The holes would become roads that would lead to a 300-acre quarry property where the company would extract, crush and store rock for the next half century. 

About 1,200 feet from the quarry’s property boundary, at the home of Jeffrey and Tanya Harrison, portions of the ceilings and walls began to split like the shell of a hard-boiled egg: 10 inches, 9 inches, 15 inches splintered across the sheetrock. After four blasts, two thin incisions, each more than 6 feet long opened in the ceiling.

“We checked the foundation, the windows” before blasting began, Tanya Harrison testified in court. “We noticed the cracks after each blast.”

The Harrisons’ home is less than 20 years old, too young to succumb unless under enormous pressure. Tanya sent photos to the state mining division, proof, she thought, that operation had damaged nearby property before the first stone had been mined. 

Tanya Harrison was among several Snow Camp residents who testified last month in a contested case hearing against the NC Department of Environmental Quality. A year ago, the agency’s Division of Energy, Mining and Land Resources —DEMLR — had granted Alamance Aggregates a mining permit over public objections. Snow Camp residents hoped Judge Michael Byrne would rule that DEMLR had to revoke the mining permit, or at the very least strengthen its environmental protections. 

“My clients went to the government to protect them,” said attorney Jim Conner in his opening statement. “And they could not get DEQ or DEMLR to take their concerns seriously.”

Over the week, testimony by DEMLR officials, Alamance Aggreates, Snow Camp residents and scientific experts — entered into the public record the weakness in state and local laws that favor mining companies over neighbors. 

In some rural communities — like Snow Camp, as well as Prospect Hill and Anderson Township in Caswell County — a lack of zoning ordinances makes them targets for these operations.

And the state Mining Act of 1971 has rarely been amended in 50 years, except to benefit industry. The last time state lawmakers changed the Mining Act was in 2017. Previously mines had to reapply for their permits every 10 years; now their permits are “life of site,” meaning they never expire until the last rock or sand grain is removed.

DEQ and DEMLR denied that they had failed to do due diligence in issuing the mining permit. It took two years, agency attorneys argued, during which time DEMLR asked for more information and incorporated some public comments into the permit requirements. Yes, they knew a segment of Colonial Pipeline ran beneath the property. And yes, they were aware of that the main man behind Alamance Aggregates had a criminal history of fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. 

But DEMLR was satisfied the permit conditions complied with the Mining Act and would protect the community.

“We know the Mining Act is flawed,” Carolyn McClain, an attorney representing DEQ, acknowledged to the court. A mining company, “Martin Marietta wrote it.”

“It’s beautiful here,” said Jane Lea Hicks, who owns property in Snow Camp near the mine. She testified in court that she long searched for a place where she and her horses could move from Texas. “It’s perfect.” (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Settled by Quakers in 1750, Snow Camp lies in far southern Alamance County, a bucolic enclave of rolling hills, dense forests and open farm fields. During fall, maples and oaks and poplars shimmer in shades of ruby, amber and magenta, more color than the eye can take in. Farmers harvest bronze stands of soybeans; black-and-white belted cows follow a tractor hauling their meal of hay.

“This is a beautiful place. What has happened to us is an injustice,” Poe, who lives near the quarry, told the court. “I know there are no guarantees, but if there was a different operator and different permit conditions, we wouldn’t feel like we had to be watchdogs for the rest of our lives.”

The Alamance Aggregates pit is 28 acres and could extend as deep as 325 feet. Another 58 acres will be consumed by overburden, stockpiles of rock, roads and sediment ponds, The entire property includes several wetlands and unnamed streams that feed Reedy Branch and Cane Creek, which in turn feed the Haw River.

Residents were worried that dewatering the quarry — pumping out as much as 500,000 gallons of water per day to get to the rock — would dry up their drinking water wells. The original mitigation plan, which would place the responsibility of fixing any wells on Alamance Aggregates, extended only to 1,000 feet from the property boundary.

There were no active drinking water wells within 1,000 feet. But just another 250 feet out, Celeste Mulrooney and her husband, Tim, live in a home closest to the mining property. “Our well is not covered by the mitigation plan,” Mulrooney, a retired intensive care nurse, testified. “It’s absolutely a concern for me. Our well is our only source of water.”

The red star represents the quarry site; the gray stars show tracts owned by Snow Camp Property Investments, which also owns the mine. (Base map Alamance GIS; data from property records)

Residents were also concerned about being blown up. A segment of Colonial Pipeline runs just 2 feet under ground across the northern part of the quarry property. Although not in the way of the pit itself, a 55-year-old gasoline and diesel fuel pipeline near a blast zone did not set well with the neighbors.

DEQ lawyers noted there is an agreement between Colonial Pipeline and Alamance Aggregates about the blasting. 

“I was shocked when I saw it,” Poe testified. 

Nearly 10 pages of the public version of the 15-page agreement had been blacked out.

When DEMLR issued the mining permit to Alamance Aggregates in November 2020, they knew that Colonial Pipeline had problems with their infrastructure. A massive gasoline spill, the result of a broken pipe, had occurred in Huntersville just three months before.

“DEQ has a duty to protect to public safety,” Conner told the court. “For the agency to say [Colonial Pipeline] is irrelevant here, I’m flabbergasted. Colonial and Alamance Aggregates have an agreement that is redacted in a laughable way.”

The two companies subsequently agreed to release a full, unredacted version — but only to the court and the attorneys. No one else knows what’s in it.

Donna Poe (left) and Celeste Mulroney both live near the quarry. Mulroney’s drinking water well is 1,250 feet from the quarry boundary. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The very existence of the company, Alamance Aggregates, had seemed sketchy from the get-go, residents testified. 

Although state records show the company is based in Snow Camp, it incorporated more than 1,600 miles away, in Wyoming. That state is popular for companies that want to shield themselves and their assets from public scrutiny; Wyoming does not require the manager nor the members of a Wyoming corporation to be listed on a public database.

“The aggregate industry is very competitive we wanted to keep our names away from the competitors, not the neighbors,” Threatt testified.

Yet over the two years’ of back and forth between the company and the residents, only when someone had to sign a reclamation bond did neighbors learn the identity of the person behind the project: Carl Andrew “Drew” Boggs III of Boggs Paving, based in Monroe, N.C.

(Despite asking DEMLR for a copy of the bond before the permit was issued, residents did not receive it until weeks afterward.)

Boggs’s paving and contracting ventures are notorious for amassing dozens of state violations over the past 25 years, according to DEQ records: dumping diesel fuel on the ground, emitting toxic air pollutants above legal limits, illegally releasing used oil. 

That alone could have legally justified DEMLR to deny the permit, Conner argued.

The Mining Act stipulates that a permit can be denied if the applicant has not been in “substantial compliance” with the state’s environmental laws. But the act does not define “substantial.”

Since DEQ never assessed civil penalties for Boggs’s violations, the Mining Act did not require the agency to deny the permit.

In 2015, a federal judge sentenced Boggs to 30 months in prison after he plead guilty to charges of fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. From 2003 through 2013, Boggs   was awarded at least 35 federally and state-funded construction contracts worth $87.6 million after falsely certifying that his company was a disadvantaged business. 

As a result of that false claim, Boggs received $3.7 million in credits.

“The Attorney General’s office is not in a position to determine whether a business is of good moral character,” McClain, the attorney representing DEQ said. “It’s not relevant to mining. To the extent that we receive evidence that an applicant has submitted false information or lied to us, we have lots of enforcement opportunities civil and criminal. The department depends on applicants submit information that is true.”

In January 2021, shortly before President Trump left office, he pardoned Boggs. 

Alamance Aggregates zeroed in on Snow Camp not only for what it has — rock — but also for what it doesn’t have — meaningful regulations. 

“We had geologists give us a little knowledge that there was rock in this area,” testified Chad Threatt, company vice president. “[This part of] Alamance County doesn’t have zoning. That’s the reason we chose the site.”

Local zoning is the first and often highest hurdle industry has to clear in the permitting process. Several times during his tenure, former DEQ Secretary Michael Regan — now EPA administrator — publicly told citizen activists that their best chance at defeating a project was in their county courthouses and city halls. 

These victories do happen on occasion: In 2018, Pleasant Garden residents leaned on Guilford County commissioners to deny a rezoning for a rock quarry. Earlier this year, a neighborhood in rural Kittrell convinced the Vance County Board of Adjustment to disapprove a land-clearing dump. 

But without zoning protections or protective ordinances, communities are largely on their own. Once an application reaches the state, a company has only to check all the legal boxes for a permit to be granted. Public input can strengthen the terms, but rarely does DEMLR deny or revoke a permit. 

The Mining Act of 1971 has served as a fortress for industry. According to the state mining inventory, since 1972 DEMLR has approved 2,375 mine permits. Of those, the division has revoked 16 and denied just five.

In 2017, the state legislature passed House Bill 56, a 19-page amalgam of relaxed environmental laws. (Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, but lawmakers overrode it.) Among the provisions was an amendment to the Mining Act to include the “life of site” provision. Unless a mining company egregiously ran afoul of the law, once it secured a mining permit, it was valid until the pit had given up all its rock. 

The change affected not only companies that would apply in the future for a mining permit, but also retroactively. Nearly 750 mining permits transformed into a lifetime pass, almost overnight.  Over the past four years since the law changed, DEMLR has received 81 new permit applications, according to state records, about average compared with the 2012-2016 time span.

As for the damage to Jeffrey and Tanya Harrisons’ home, it was unlikely, if not impossible that blasting caused the cracks, testified Adam Parr, state assistant mining specialist. The Harrisons live next to the Mulrooney family, whose home also rattles during blasting. “It feels like waves through the floor, like an earthquake,” Celeste Mulroney testified.

Although no one from DEMLR visited the either family’s home, seismographic readings taken at the time indicated the force was too weak to have wreaked that level of havoc on the Harrisons.

But the seismograph had been placed by Alamance Aggregates, without being inspected by the state. The law does not require it.

After a week of testimony, both sides entered a settlement agreement. Although many of the details are confidential, the residents of Snow Camp did receive more stringent protections for the groundwater and their wells.  The protections extend beyond 1,000 feet from the quarry property to encompass those wells that had not been included.

“We did this for everyone,” said Donna Poe. “I love our community. This is our life. We live here.”

More mines in the works

Prospect Hill, in southeastern Caswell County: DEQ has granted an air permit to Carolina Sunrock but has yet to issue one for mining. The company plans to build two asphalt plants, one in Prospect Hill and another in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Anderson Township. There is current litigation regarding the mine; the company sued 55 property owners after several residents appealed a watershed protection permit the county had been granted. Last month, the Caswell County planning board was supposed to hold a hearing on the issue, but failed to assemble a quorum. Next date: Nov. 23.

Piedmont Lithium Carolinas has applied to construct a mine on 1,500 acres in Gaston County, east of Cherryville. Public hearing in person: Nov. 15, 6:30 p.m., 325 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Way, Gastonia. Additional virtual hearing: Nov. 18, 7 p.m.

This story was corrected. Adam Parr’s title is assistant mining specialist, not DEMLR director.

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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.