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‘Sooner’ or ‘later’? Fate of Wake Stone quarry near Umstead State Park hinges on one word

06/15/2021 1:25 PM | Anonymous

Written by Lisa Sorg, NC Policy Watch

Former N.C. Attorney General says there was no typo, and the state intended for mining to wind down in 2032, not the 22nd century

One word — “sooner” — in a 40-year-old mining permit could alter the future of a quarry and its controversial proposed expansion adjacent to Umstead State Park in Raleigh.

According to former North Carolina Attorney General Rufus Edmisten, the issuers of the original 1981 state permit intended that Wake Stone stop mining and begin reclamation of the site when the quarry was exhausted, or in 50 years, whichever was “sooner.” That language would require reclamation to begin in 2032.

But a 2018 permit change appears to allow the company to continue to operate the mine until it is exhausted, or for 50 years, whichever is “later.” The change could ease the way for Wake Stone to expand the quarry and continue mining for decades.

If the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality determines the new information from Edmisten is valid, it could not only halt mining sooner at the existing quarry, but also make the controversial proposed expansion less viable because of a shortened timeline. The state Division of Energy, Mineral, and Land Resources (DEMLR) could decide on the expansion permit before the end of the summer.

Edmisten had sent the email detailing his memory to former Wake County Commissioner Erv Portman, an opponent of the quarry, who forwarded it to state environmental regulators.

A controversy that’s spanned four decades

Edmisten, who served as attorney general from 1974 to 1984, recently reviewed the permit change on behalf of Portman and other members of the Umstead Coalition, opponents of the mine.

“The Division is aware of the questions raised by Mr. Portman,” said Sharon Martin, DEQ deputy secretary for public affairs. “The permit application is still in the review process and all public comments and information provided will be considered during that process.”

Edmisten could not be reached by phone at his law office, but through his assistant verified the email.

Wake Stone spokeswoman Melanie Jennings said Edmisten was not involved in the permit application review or the company’s subsequent appeals to the state Mining Commission. “His letter is purely a recollection on his part as to what was meant,” Jennings said.

While it is true that Edmisten was not directly involved in the original permitting for the site, his office was embroiled in the controversy. Assistant Attorney General Daniel Oakley represented the Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, now known as DEQ, and its divisions. Edmisten was also regularly informed about the issue and was often quoted in media reports at the time as opposing the project.

DEMLR, then known as the Division of Land Resources, originally denied Wake Stone’s permit application in August 1980. It cited concerns that the proposed quarry “would have a significantly adverse effect on the purposes of a publicly owned park, forest or recreation area.”

“The combined effects of noise, sedimentation, dust, traffic and blasting vibration” associated with quarry would impact the park “in the form of noise intrusion and deterioration of visual resources,” the denial read.

Wake Stone appealed the decision to the state Mining Commission, which overturned the division’s ruling in the spring of 1981. The Mining Commission’s decision contains a pivotal section: It states that reclamation must begin when the quarry is exhausted or in 50 years, whichever is “later.”

In an email to DEMLR, Edmisten wrote that Wake Stone “always preferred no time limit … and the Mining Commission copied that position into their final order.”

But “later” did not appear in the final permit. Steve Conrad, then the state director of land resources, issued the permit to Wake Stone in May 1981, with the word “sooner.” 

In issuing the permit, Conrad wrote to Wake Stone, asking the company to review it “and notify this office of any objection or question concerning the terms.” Wake Stone did not; the company later contended the word “sooner” was a typo.

“To the best of my memory, what I can say is that I do not think Director [Steve] Conrad made a typographical error with the word ‘Sooner’ in the permit …” Edmisten wrote last month to DEMLR. “I also find it difficult to believe Wake Stone would have accepted the permit if it was an error. This was not a small or insignificant point.”

Conrad died in 2011.

Even though the “sooner” language appeared in Wake Stone’s mining permit, the company never appealed it in eight routine renewals — until 2011. “For whatever reason, the suggested word change was omitted” in 2011, Wake Stone wrote to DEMLR this year. “Wake Stone chose not to pursue the issue further at that time.”

However, in 2018, DEMLR removed the word “sooner” from the permit and changed it to “later,” at Wake Stone’s request, state documents show. 

Judy Wehner assistant state mining specialist, made the change to “later” during an email exchange with the company, documents show, with no opportunity for public comment. DEMLR considered the change merely administrative, and was among minor modifications in the permit that did not require public notice.

Yet the word change coincided with two important developments: Wake Stone and the RDU Airport Authority had been negotiating over leasing land next to the park for the quarry expansion. Many DEMLR employees had also moved on by 2018, leaving little institutional memory to counter Wake Stone’s narrative.

Continue reading the full article on NC Policy Watch

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