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Save RDU Forest issue: Opponents of quarry and State Sen. Wiley Nickel request public hearing, or a delay until they can be held

The efforts of opponents to a proposed quarry next to William B. Umstead Park have attracted the support of Democratic state Sen. Wiley Nickel of Wake County, who recently expressed concerns about Wake Stone Corp.’s mining permit application because of the difficulties surrounding public hearings during the coronavirus crisis.

“Public hearings are an imperative part of permitting procedures. They allow the public a chance to react to plans for new development and raise awareness of potentially disastrous environmental or social impacts,” Nickel said in a recent news release. “On April 8, in the midst of an international public crisis, Wake Stone Corp. filed a mining permit application request… .”

“I respectfully urge (the Division of Energy, Minerals, and Land Resources) to delay consideration of the mining permit until a safe, in-person public hearing can be held. The COVID-19 pandemic should not be used as a backdoor for corporations to destroy North Carolina’s natural wonders.”

Morrisville-based Wake Stone filed a mining permit on April 8 for the proposed quarry on the 105-acre Odd Fellows tract adjacent to William B. Umstead Park. Wake Stone has an existing quarry on Harrison Avenue on the other side of Crabtree Creek, also next to the park. The second mine would leave Crabtree Creek suspended above two quarries.

Jean Spooner, chairwoman of the Umstead Coalition, the nonprofit that protects and preserves Umstead Park, said their position is the state should reject the permit application.

“We believe they should deny the permit altogether because it is against the purpose for the state park, and against their own studies,” Spooner said.

In February, Wake County Superior Court Judge Graham Shirley granted an injunction to stop Wake Stone from mining, that is, unless they get a permit from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, which the mining division falls under.

The Umstead Coalition has asked its supporters to write to the DEQ to request at least a public hearing on the new permit application.

Robert Johnson, a spokesman for the DEQ, said in an e-mail this week that they have received more than 500 emails and letters requesting a public hearing.

“If there is a public hearing, it must happen within 60 days of the end of the initial 30-day comment period,” Johnson said in an e-mail. That 60-day period began on Thursday. Public hearings can be held under the state’s COVID-19 response, according to Johnson.

Raleigh-Durham International Airport leased the property to Wake Stone in March 2019, much to the shock and outrage of Umstead Coalition and Save RDU Forest activists. Since then, opponents of the quarry have stepped up efforts to get the community involved on the issue. The parties also have been embroiled in legal actions.

On May 1, RDU announced that it is receiving $49.5 million in federal bailout funds in response to the coronavirus crisis.

In addition to Wake Stone’s application, the DEQ is also considering permits for the controversial mine proposed by Carolina Sunrock in Caswell County, and another mine in Alamance County proposed by Alamance Aggregates.

“We’ve already experienced a lot of conflicts with the current quarry operation, with the road, the damage, and the air quality,” Spooner, chairwoman of Umstead Coalition, said of Wake Stone’s existing mine off Harrison Avenue.

“And in the new quarry just in the teeny amount (Wake Stone has) put in, their exploratory drilling, it’s been incredible disruption for bikers, walkers, strollers, runners. It is a tremendous conflict and that is just a small portion of what they want to do,” she said.

“We believe there’s a lot of inadequacy in their application,” she added.

“Given the statewide stay-at-home orders, submitting the application at this time seems, to me, to be an attempt to minimize public input and the public process,” said Natalie Lew in an e-mail this week. Lew is a member of the Triangle Off-Road Cyclists and one of the most involved members of the Save RDU Forest group.

Ron Sutherland, chief scientist with the Wildlands Network, an environmental nonprofit for the conservation of wildlife habitat and corridors, was a Boy Scout growing up in the ‘80s and remembers the Odd Fellows tract well. From 2013 to 2015, Sutherland worked for the Wildlands Network in saving the 79,000-acre Hofman Forest on North Carolina’s coast.

“It’s beautiful. It’s got great typography,” Sutherland said of the Odd Fellows tract. “Once you’ve camped at a place a dozen times, seen the deer in the morning, heard the birds, it’s just impossible to imagine having that turn into a giant hole.”

“If you look at the criteria… for rejecting a mining permit, my recollection is that this Odd Fellow quarry proposal triggers all of them, because of the way it would impact the state park. And Crabtree Creek, it becomes suspended like an aqueduct,” he added.

“Everyone is distracted right now. You might just get the fraction of interest that you’d normally get, because people are trying to pay for food, and trying to make sure their grandparents won’t get sick,” he said.

“It’s just not the time to take on a serious policy matter like this. They could wait. Or they could just deny it.”

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