Carolina Public Press’ multipart series focusing on the Mountain Mist Mine continues. In parts four and five, residents of Hicks Chapel, a rural community in McDowell County, have their day in North Carolina administrative court. To read earlier parts of the story, go to Mining in your backyard: The story of Mountain Mist Mine and the neighbors contesting it – Carolina Public Press.
In July, a North Carolina administrative judge affirmed a permit issued to the Mountain Mist Mine in McDowell County. Water quality concerns raised by neighboring residents led to a petition seeking to alter the size of the mine. Although the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality assured residents that mining operations wouldn’t harm their natural water source, residents worry that they will be the ones solely responsible for bearing the future costs of repairing or replacing their source of drinking water.
During the April 4 hearing held in the Haywood County Justice Center, N.C. Assistant Attorney General Carolyn McLain emphasized during her closing argument that the division operates as a complaint-based system, actively welcoming public feedback.
“A lot of times the public knows more on the ground than we do, and we do our best to receive and identify any concerns,” she said.
Residents can contact one of the regional DEQ offices if they believe their natural water source is impacted by mining operations. 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, and guided by the N.C. Mining Act of 1971.
Establishing a causal relationship between what the mine is doing and the quality of the water may not be easy, according to Sara Sutherland, a Duke University environmental economist. Preventing problems before they become contentious may be less costly, she said.
Sutherland suggests a proactive approach to addressing pollution from mining could potentially lower costs for regulators, neighbors and businesses, such as an upfront agreement between the mining company and the community outlining agreed-upon standards for water quality.
Although agreements are rare, an example is a contract between Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Co. and local community organizations to protect natural landscapes while allowing mining in Billings, Mont.
Sutherland told CPP that the government’s role should be to minimize conflict resolution costs. DEQ could help facilitate and intervene between the operation and neighbors. While negotiations may have high organizing costs, they can prevent future expenses for taxpayers, mining operators and neighbors.
“If the neighbors have the right to a clean spring, there could be an agreement prior to operations beginning that said that if water quality is degraded, the mining firm provides compensation or agrees to clean the water,” she said. “That would be a proactive way for the state to help ensure mining operations have a social license to operate.”
Proving that mining has an impact on water quality may be difficult, but establishing a compensation remedy may be less costly and time-consuming than going to court.
“The key is to lower the costs of the mechanisms by which a community is compensated for the costs they bear,” Sutherland said.
Environmental justice areas
Having a contracting mechanism in the law could also benefit low-income areas or places with weaker land use laws and protections in the state. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, lower-income neighborhoods may have less access to information about regulations and opportunities for public participation regarding the public oversight of mining.
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. Environmental justice is the notion that communities should not be disproportionately exposed to adverse environmental impacts.
Pennsylvania’s Environmental Justice Public Participation Policy was created to ensure communities have the opportunity to participate in the permitting process for 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.
According to the EPA, meaningful involvement in decisions involving environmental regulations means that:
- People have the opportunity to participate in decisions about activities that may affect their environment and/or health.
- The public’s contribution can influence the regulatory agency’s decision.
- Community concerns will be considered in the decision-making process.
- Decision makers will seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentially affected.
It’s often more cost-effective for extractive or polluting industries to establish operations in regions with less stringent regulations or with higher proportions of marginalized racial and ethnic populations, said Sutherland. That may give a business a significant advantage since mounting a case to prove wrongdoing can be financially burdensome.
Industries that release pollution into the environment might choose to establish their operations in areas with lower income levels, where the cost of land is less expensive. They could also opt for neighborhoods where they believe the local residents have limited influence or power in political matters.
Hicks Chapel isn’t the only neighborhood in North Carolina affected by mining. The DEQ’s Mine Inventory shows that there are 133,000 acres of active mines permitted by the state. The DEQ also lists recent mine permitting updates throughout the state.
The permitting process
The mining permitting process is a technical process with limited opportunities for meaningful participation. Working-class or poor communities may have limited time, resources, understanding and funding to prepare a thoughtful response to a permit application.
The petition filed by Tim Burnette and his neighbors wasn’t intended to close the mine. The petition was to mitigate their concerns about the risk to their water source from mining adjacent to their community.
Using the courts to seek compensation can be costly and time-consuming. Instead, decision makers can facilitate interaction between the community and the industry to address concerns and avoid costly litigation.
While the DEQ accepts comments from neighboring homes during the mining permit process, the opportunities for the public to participate in the permitting process are limited. The state’s mining act includes information about North Carolina’s mining permit application review process.
In this case, the process of voicing concerns was largely driven by the community’s concerns rather than state regulators seeking out and facilitating community involvement.
The Hicks Chapel community had a say in the permission process. The last permit given in December 2022 changed a permit from June 2022 to remove an excavation area to protect the community’s spring and water source.
While Burnette remains uneasy about the judge’s decision to uphold the permit issued to the Mountain Mist and the potential harm to their natural spring, he accepts that the rock industry will continue to be a way of life near his home.
“I don’t have a problem with mining as a business if it’s done within the proper guidelines,” Burnette said, adding that he doesn’t regret filing the petition against state regulators. “It gave us an opportunity for our voices to be heard in a reasoned manner.”
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