Carolina Public Press is publishing 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 two, reporter Jack Igelman explains the permitting process, its timeline and the community’s specific concerns. CPP reached out again to the mine owner and representing firm and will include their perspective, if they choose to comment, in the last part of this series. To read part one and three in the series.
The Mountain Mist Mine is one of a handful of open pit mines clustered along U.S. 221 several miles north of Marion, the McDowell County seat. Commonly called quarries, an open pit mine extracts rocks and minerals from the ground’s surface.
Along the edges of the highway are several open pit quarries and rock sellers who pack rock in 1-ton wire baskets. Among the many varieties of stones, according to the once-active website of Carolina Graystone Quarries which operates nearby, is Mountain Mist, a grayish-blue rock with rusty streaks.
The corridor of mining activity is hemmed by Pisgah National Forest and dotted with a handful of rural residential communities, including the one where Tim Burnette, 54, lives.
At best, the quarries provide jobs, income and building stone for commercial and residential projects throughout the region. At worst, the open mines are a source of mud, dust, noise, sediment and, to some, an eyesore. On windy days, dust settles on furniture when windows are open.
Burnette said he can live with the dust and mud, but concerns about his family’s water supply is another story.
“Do I want a mine in my backyard? No. But I have quite a few friends who work in this business. They have a job. They are contributing to the community,” he said.
Burnette isn’t opposed to mining as long as the mine owners obey state mining laws and control sedimentation.
Burnette’s main complaint is the lack of transparency in the permitting process and a lack of regard for his neighbor’s concerns about the mine. Some of those concerns include protecting the community water sources, noise, blasting, dust, runoff and the fear that a larger mining operation could magnify some of the inconveniences of living next to a quarry.
“We feel as if the [N.C. Department of Environmental Quality] has said, ‘If you’re a small landowner, you have no political pull. You have no political connections. So we have no interest in you,” Burnette said. “Collectively, the folks who have spoken out feel that we have been stonewalled at each turn. [DEQ] has not been at all transparent.”
The state Mining Act requires the permit applicant, in this case Mountain Mist Mine mining permit No. 5646, to notify property owners within 1,000 feet of the mine during the permit application. In response to Mountain Mist’s permit application, several neighbors sent letters in protest to make regulators aware of their concerns, specifically asking for an opportunity to address the mining operator and state regulators.
Josh Kastrinsky, public information officer for the N.C. Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources, said the agency reviews all comments, emails and letters sent to the state in regard to a permit application. He declined to comment on specifics of the Mountain Mist Mine permit since the contested case remains active.
Burnette thinks DEMLR has not adequately addressed the potential risk to the area’s water source and the future costs of replacing it if mining does damage it. “Some of the previous operators of the mine had little regard for adjoining residential properties,” said Burnette. For example, runoff from the mine has been consistent during heavy rains for over a decade.
CPP reached out to the mine applicant, Kenneth Waycaster, in 2021 and he chose not to comment. More recently, CPP has left messages for Waycaster requesting comment on this story.
Public hearings are one method to survey citizen opinion about an application before a government body. Public meetings are useful for sharing information to raise awareness about a proposed project and serve as a starting point for further public involvement, states the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in its public participation guide.
In lieu of a public meeting, Burnette and his neighbors have succeeded in gathering information using email or wading through the state’s permit file server. In some cases, Burnette’s emails with questions are answered by state mining experts. In other cases, his questions have been channeled through a state attorney since the case is in litigation. Those obstacles, perhaps, have made it more challenging for Burnette and neighbors to share experiences, such as the persistent flow of mud and silt during heavy rain events, with the mine’s operators and regulators.
“I feel like the state is strongly biased toward the premise of issuing a permit rather than freely providing information to citizens that may be affected,” Burnette told CPP on Feb. 26.
History of the Mountain Mist Mine
Twenty years have passed since the Mountain Mist, under a previous operator, initially applied for a permit. The following timeline highlights the regulatory oversight of the Mountain Mist leading up to the state permitting the mine in 2022.
2003: Ronnie Stevens and Kevin Washburn applied for a permit to mine 4 acres on the present site. That application was withdrawn.
2008: State mine inspection included in the report that the operator must obtain a permit.
2009: State inspects mine and determines it is less than 1 acre and did not require a permit.
April 2021: CPP contacts state regulators to request information about the Mountain Mist Mine, triggering an inspection.
May 2021: The state’s mining agency cited Mountain Mist for operating two mines without a permit.
August 2021: Waycaster Stone Inc. applies for a permit to operate the Mountain Mist Mine.
October 2021: Regulators request additional information.
December 2021: A revised permit application is submitted.
June 2022: Permit is granted.
July 2022: Petition filed against the state for violation of rights.
December 2022: A modified permit is granted.
Burnette recalls using the forested land now part of the Mountain Mist Mine as a place to ride bicycles, hunt and explore. “If kids wanted to play there, they were welcome to play,” said Burnette. He’s unsure of the exact year but said there was a small amount of mining on the property in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
Based on records from the NCDEQ, the neighborhood was established before mining activity began next to Burnette’s neighborhood.
In 2003, previous mining operators Ronnie Stevens and Kevin Washburn applied for a permit to mine 4 acres on the present site. That application was withdrawn. Records indicate the mine was inspected in 2008 and 2009. The 2008 inspection appeared to be triggered by a 2005 request to the operator by the state referred to in the inspection as an “Additional Information Letter,” wrote the inspector. The inspections were sent to CPP in response to a public records request. The state did not share the “additional information letter. They were either unable to find it or it was never delivered.
The 2008 inspection report identified the potential for off-site damage, identifying the need for sediment and erosion control measures; the report also stated that the operator “must obtain a mining permit.” In 2009, an inspection listed the size of the mine as 0.6 acres. Burnette said that several neighbors had spoken out by writing letters to state regulators expressing concerns about the mine, but he doesn’t fault neighbors who haven’t.
In April 2021, other people contacted by CPP in the neighborhood, as well as public comments during the permitting process, confirmed similar issues, such as runoff, with the Mountain Mist Mine. For example, one neighbor contacted several local and statewide environmental organizations to better understand the short- and long-term impacts, such as the effect on water and air quality, of mining near their home and on the environment. The neighbors were unable to find adequate information about the mine or its requirements to reclaim the land once the mining operation closes.
At the time, the neighbor contacted CPP with questions about requirements for mines to reclaim their land and questions about other mining regulations. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality digital map of mining permits showed that the mine property had a pending permit.
After a CPP inquiry about why the permit was still pending, state officials inspected the mine on May 19, 2021, and discovered a second quarry adjoined by a common access road. Despite the 2008 inspection suggesting the mine needed a permit, the quarry was not inspected for more than a decade. The lack of oversight may demonstrate the challenge of regulating small mines that operate at the threshold of requiring a permit.
The May 2021 inspection showed that both quarries on the Mountain Mist site exceeded 1 acre and required a mining permit to continue their operations. The acreage of the active mine areas at the time of inspection in 2021 were 1.5 acres and 1.36 acres. The agency cited owners of the two rock quarries for failure to obtain proper permits, forcing the operations to cease.
Even small mines can have a measurable impact on the environment. Land management and reclamation practices often depend on the operator’s standards, UNC Asheville geologist Brittani McNamee told CPP in 2021. “There are plenty of good, environmentally conscious businesses in the state,” but not all, she said. “It really falls on the priorities of the company.” McNamee is referring to the level of stewardship practiced by industries that have an environmental impact and demonstrated through continuous improvement of environmental impact.
Leftover topsoil and subsurface removed to extract rock are prone to erosion and become a source of runoff and sedimentation, potentially flowing into the watershed and disrupting ecosystems. Additionally, small clearings disturbed by mining are ripe for infestation by nonnative invasive plants that can gain a foothold and spread into adjacent forests.
The permit specifies the conditions of restoration once a mine closes. The owner or operator of the mine must either restore the land or apply for a permit to continue mining. In this case, the operator chose to apply for a permit.
On Aug. 18, 2021, Freeman Environmental Consulting Inc. of Spruce Pine submitted a permit application on behalf of Waycaster Stone Co. Inc. to extract crushed stone. The application proposed impacting a total of 5.94 acres within a 26.3-acre area adjacent to the Hicks Chapel community.
According to the N.C. Mining Act of 1971, notices are delivered to all adjoining property owners within 1,000 feet of the boundary.
Several members of the community sent letters to the state expressing concerns with the Mountain Mist requesting a public hearing to address concerns about the mine’s impact, the quality and volume of the spring, the impact of blasting, runoff, dust and the potential loss of their property’s value.
CPP contacted residents who sent letters to NC DEQ for interviews. Those residents chose not to respond to requests, not to speak to CPP, or did not speak on the record.
“Regardless of our protest letters, we didn’t get a public hearing. We were blown off by the agency, and our concerns were trivialized,” said Burnette. “We only got updates when we specifically asked,”
There is no legal requirement that the agency hold a public hearing. It is at the discretion of the mining agency if “significant public interest exists,” according to the Mining Act, within 60 days of the end of the 30-day comment period. The mining act does not provide guidance on the threshold for public interest.
According to the state’s mining inventory, the state has convened 40 hearings since 1980. Over 2,300 mines are listed in the database. The N.C. Mine Inventory is a spreadsheet which provides a range of data, including the size of the mine, its location by county, the commodity mined and its inspection history.
Seldom has DEMLR denied a permit application. According to the agency’s mine inventory, 10 mining permits have been denied. Recently, a permit application from Wake Stone Co. was rejected because of its impact on the popular William B. Umstead State Park in Wake County.
According to a memo from Brian Wrenn, DEMLR division director, the “significantly adverse effects” of a quarry were “articulated” by “thousands of comments from the general public” regarding the impact on the park.
Other states, such as Pennsylvania, have policies whereby residents of “environmental justice areas” receive engagement opportunities during the permitting process for projects in their neighborhoods, such as landfills or mining operations. The Environmental Justice Public Participation Policy was created to ensure communities have the opportunity to participate in the permitting process of new or existing facilities that wish to expand.
Environmental justice areas are communities characterized by low incomes and a high number of minorities in which 20% of residents live below the federal poverty line or 30% are nonwhite; 13.8% of McDowell County’s population live below the federal poverty line. Environmental justice is the notion that communities should not be disproportionately exposed to adverse environmental impacts.
Currently, the N.C. Mining Commission, the authority for mining rules, is seeking public comment on its existing mining rules. Laws, such as the Mining Act, are made by the N.C. General Assembly and can only be amended by legislative action. The N.C. Administrative Code contains the administrative rules of state agencies. The rules are created to interpret the law and govern state agencies and commissions.
State law requires each agency, such as NCDEQ, to review each decade existing rules that are used to interpret and enforce laws, such as the N.C. Mining Act. For example, the rules stipulate what must be included in a permit application; the standards for denying an application; conditions for holding a public hearing, among others. Citizens may object to the rule by submitting a written comment to NCDENR by April 4. The N.C. Mining Commission will draft a new set of rules based on comments later this year.
After review and input by a range of federal and state agencies, such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife, DEQ issued a mining permit to the Mountain Mist in June 2022. A month later, residents, uneasy about the potential impact of the permitted mine on a natural spring, filed petitions objecting to the permit’s details. Instead of a public hearing, residents of Hicks Chapel will have an opportunity to defend their position in a North Carolina court room on April 4.
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