CPP is launching a three-part series focusing on the Mountain Mist Mine and concerns from the community regarding the permitting process for the mine to operate. In part one, reporter Jack Igelman provides the context and background for the mine and the community’s concerns. CPP reached out to the mine owner and representing firm and will include their perspective, if they choose to comment, in later parts of this series.
Tim Burnette, 54, moved into his modest ranch home in McDowell County in 2010. He has lived his entire life in the picturesque valley where he and his wife raised two children. The neighborhood where they live is known as Hicks Chapel, and it’s located between McDowell’s county seat, Marion, and Woodlawn, a rural community of modest, well-kept single-level homes separated by relatively large lots, some of them bordered by forest.
The problem is that since he moved in, he’s watched muddy water flow down Hicks Chapel Loop, the single two-lane state road in this rural community, several times. He shared this as he sat on a rocking chair on his porch on a Sunday afternoon in November. He pointed to his grandmother’s modest house that sits nearby on land his great-grandfather farmed beginning in the 1930s.
“My sister lives there now with her husband. The trailer on the hill is a cousin who has been there 20 years. Below him is his mother’s original home, which they rent. Above her is my aunt’s place,” explained Burnette, a rooster crowing in the background. “What I’m trying to say is there are many folks that have been here for decades.”
Looking out from his porch with him, it was easier to understand his community and the impact a recently permitted mine has had on it. The mine had been shut down in 2021 for operating without a permit, but now it is back.
Burnette pointed to the cluster of small, aging but well-maintained houses with sizable yards that make up what he calls a working-class neighborhood.
“The reason we live here is because it’s community. It’s family,” said Burnette, a trim, soft-spoken man with graying hair. He is wearing blue jeans and a button-down checkered shirt with a yellow packet of rolling tobacco in his chest pocket. He is a state-employed electrician. His back porch overlooks his roughly 2-acre backyard along a tributary of Tom Creek that includes his wife’s garden and a badminton net.
“If I pick up the phone right now and need help, we’ll have neighbors here in less than five minutes. There’s a sense of community; a sense of working together,” he said.
The return of the mine, however, changes things.
The Mountain Mist Mine
The source of the muddy water flowing down Hicks Chapel Loop is the steep mountainside and site of the Mountain Mist Mine, a dimension stone quarry that extracts rock from an open pit, neighbors say. The mine has operated sporadically over the last two or three decades, said Burnette. A 2003 permit application submitted to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality by the Appalachian Stone Co. Inc. was obtained by Carolina Public Press in November.
The permit shows that the mine had been in operation “for several years.” Despite its substantial mining history in a place where quarries are common, the neighborhood and many of its residents have an even longer history. Since the neighborhood came first, should the mine have a greater burden in seeking a permit? Not according to the mining law.
When the mine is active and during heavy rains, mud, silt and small rocks wash down an unpaved mining access road, Burnette said. All this can collect on the paved road and in ditches, creating pools of muck and gravel in neighboring yards.
Twice, Burnette has excavated the ditch along the roadside above his home to prevent it from overflowing with sediment and spilling into his front yard. Other times, the state cleared the ditches on the road’s edge, he said.
When it rains more, there is significant sedimentation, small rocks and ground-up dirt and sand that comes from the mining property, said Burnette. The runoff includes muddy water, leaving behind sediment in the roadway and in the roadside ditches and making it more likely to spill into yards the next time it rains.
CPP reached out to additional residents around the mine for interviews. The ones who agreed to be interviewed requested to be unnamed, but granted permission for the information they shared to be used on background to inform the story.
A neighbor who wished to be unnamed said silt, rocks and mud combine in a muddy flow along a mining access road onto Hicks Chapel Road during sudden bursts of rain or during prolonged rain events. The most recent flooding was in June 2021, according to the resident who said neighbors have become accustomed to the runoff.
The impact of the runoff may be manageable, but this community has struggled under current state mining rules to have their concerns heard about the impact of the quarry just yards from their homes. Burnette worries that his requests to enforce the mining act responsibly to minimize the negative impact around their homes and in the nearby environment will go unnoticed by state regulators.
Although the Mountain Mist is a relatively small operation, the combined scale of mining across the state is significant. The N.C. Mine Inventory on the NCDEQ website lists 133,000 acres in North Carolina, roughly half the area of McDowell County, that are active mines and permitted by the state. That figure does not include reclaimed mines, mines operating under a 1-acre permit threshold or mines that operated before the state’s mining act was passed in 1971. Reclamation refers to the reasonable rehabilitation of the land previously used for mining.
The Hicks Chapel community isn’t alone in its concerns about the impact of mining. For example, a controversial quarry in Yadkin County and another near Cary have put state mining regulators under scrutiny as they oversee and regulate mining legislation created over five decades ago.
The challenge is for Burnette and his neighbors to navigate a complicated set of laws and rules that are difficult to grasp. While they may have legitimate concerns about the nuisance of a quarry and its impact on their water source, state regulators must follow the due process of the law, placing a heavy burden on the community.
In North Carolina, quarries, or mines such as the Mountain Mist, are regulated and inspected by the state DEQ’s Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources, or DEMLR. The N.C. Mining Act of 1971 set out regulations, such as mines greater than 1 acre requiring a permit.
The Mining Act “reflected growing efforts to influence environmentally sound practices in the mineral industries in North Carolina,” according to a history of N.C. State University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering .
In an April 1971 address to the N.C. General Assembly, then-Gov. Bob Scott said “a groundswell of public concern for the environment” led to the proposal of five major bills, including a mining act and an environmental policy act.
“A major purpose of the proposed mining law is to require that mined-over lands be reclaimed by some reasonable procedure,” Scott said. Prior to the mining act, there was no legal requirement to restore abandoned mines.
An inquiry by CPP in May 2021 triggered an inspection that the Mountain Mist reached and exceeded that threshold. An inspection in 2009 had indicated the mine was less than 1 acre.
In May 2021, the state’s mining agency cited Mountain Mist for operating two mines without a permit. Despite the violations and mounting opposition from neighbors, Mountain Mist will be able to operate again, this time with a permit that expands its size to over 5 acres.
The DEQ must apply the mining law to deny a permit. As a result, without an ongoing violation of the law, there isn’t a legal reason to deny a permit. In the case of operating without a permit, the corrective action is to apply for a permit. The mining act does not include operating in the past without a permit as grounds to dismiss a future applicant.
Burnette and other neighbors of the quarry recently took a major step in their concerns about the mining activities, filing a petition with the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings.
The OAH, an independent, quasi-judicial agency presiding over administrative law, was created by the N.C. General Assembly in 1985 to hear appeals of decisions made by the state government. The OAH contested cases intend to provide impartial judgment when a citizen has a complaint with a state agency.
A hearing is set for April 4 at 9 a.m. in the Haywood County Justice Center. Burnette is among one of 12 individuals who filed a petition.
While Burnette’s primary concern is the threat to drinking water and groundwater, he is also troubled by the lack of transparency and indifference to the safety of the community from state regulators.
“Regardless of our protest letters, we didn’t get a public hearing. We were blown off by the [state regulators], and our concerns were trivialized. We only got updates when we specifically asked,” he said.
Burnette said the most pressing concern is water quality in addition to noise, dust and other inconveniences caused by a mine operating within view of their homes.
DEMLR did not comment since the case is pending.
The proposed mine, said Burnette, threatens a natural spring used by multiple families approximately 90 feet from the proposed mine property lines. The springs, he said, have been in use for more than 55 years in lieu of a public water supply, which is not available.
“That raises a significant concern for us,” Burnette said.
According to family lore, Burnette’s grandfather purchased the land because of the presence of a “good bold spring.” The spring that likely captured his grandfather’s attention is actually three separate flows clustered together, each spilling from the ground via a rock ledge exposed in the side of the mountain cloaked by a dense canopy of rhododendron. The springs’ ample flow fills three reservoirs that distribute to a dozen homes.
“We have a resource that has a significant value,” he said. “To replace these springs would be a significant cost. If they’re damaged, we’re going to have to bear some costs somewhere. I feel like there should have been some consideration for that.”
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