By Jack Igelman, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
The mine next to the McDowell County house where Cody Jones lives extracted rock from the ground for as long as he can recall.
“I remember being able to explore when it was still mostly wild forest,” said the 28-year-old.
Over the years, Jones heard explosions that he presumed unearthed stone from the mountainside. He often brushed away dust that had settled on the living room furniture.
Just feet from Jones’ back door, a steep slope of rocky material spreads to his property line, deposited by the mine in years past. In the summer, vegetation obscures the view of the quarry, but it is visible in the winter.
For Jones and his father, David Jones, who own the home, the question of the mine’s environmental impact and the footprint of the excavated ridgeline within feet of their backyard stoked a slow-burning unease. In early 2021, they approached Carolina Public Press with questions about mining regulations.
In North Carolina, mines of more than 1 acre require a permit, and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality digital map of mining permits showed that a mine adjacent to Jones’ property had a pending permit.
After a CPP inquiry to DEQ’s Division of Energy, Mining and Land Resources about the pending permit, state officials inspected the mine, called Mountain Mist, on May 19 and discovered a second mine adjoined by a common access road.
Both mines exceed 1 acre and will require a mining permit to continue their operation, NCDEQ public information officer Cathy Akroyd said. The agency cited owners of the two rock quarries adjacent to Jones’ property for a failure to obtain proper permits, forcing the operations to cease.
Searching for answers
The citations were the first response Cody Jones has received despite his many efforts to get more information about the mine and its impact. He contacted “over a dozen” local and statewide environmental organizations to better grasp the impact of mining on his home, the community and the environment, he said.
“If they did respond, they referred me to another group. It’s like a black hole of not knowing about this particular issue,” he said.
Jones said that he doesn’t begrudge the operations for their work, which includes use of explosives and heavy equipment to excavate the rock, but some of the costs of mining are landing in their backyard.
“It’s getting harder to hide,” Jones said. “It’s just not a good location. This is a residential neighborhood.”
In early June, Jones felt and heard an explosion from one of the mines near his home. More frequent in years past, blasts happen every few months, he said.
During heavy rains, muddy runoff flows from the bottom of a mine access road down their paved neighborhood road. On windy days, dust settles on furniture when windows are open.
Jones said the mine does not operate at a constant pace. In the past, it’s been inactive for years at a time, he said, but in recent months he sees evidence of its operation.
“They’ll obviously never be able to replace the mountain or re-create the exact environment that was there before,” said Jones. But he believes if mine owners “are going to do this to the land, at the very least be required to reclaim the land and repair some of the damage.”
Holding mine owners responsible requires a determination of ownership by state officials.
In 2009, state regulators determined the Mountain Mist Quarry was less than 1 acre and did not require a permit.
When CPP inquired about the pending permit noted on the department’s digital map, Toby Vinson, chief of program operations for the division, said the application was never completed, and the permit is no longer pending.
If there is not a valid permit in place and an inspector finds a violation, the landowner receives the violation notice, according to Ackroyd.
The owner then has a choice: either apply for a permit and post a bond to ensure restoration and repair of the land when the mining ends or stop mining and start reclamation.
“If the landowner says there is another operator leasing with their permission, that party will also receive an NOV,” she said.
Inspectors found the mine closest to the Jones home measured 1.5 acres. The property is owned by Evangeline Stevens Peek, manager of Carolina Greystone Quarries, who told CPP that she received the violation and is in contact with DEQ.
The violation notice cited Carolina Greystone Quarries as the mine operator. While Peek said her family owns the land, they lease it to an operator. Her business does not sell the rock that is mined from the quarry, Peek said. She declined to identify who leases the property.
Peek said she will not seek a permit, but the lessee could. Otherwise, “we will close it completely down. I have no interest in permitting it or working it,” she said.
Kenneth L. Waycaster and his wife, Tonya Waycaster, of Marion received the second violation from the state for a property of 1.36 acres.
On June 2, Waycaster told CPP he had not received the violation and he thinks the mine is less than 1 acre and is leased to a different entity.
According to Akroyd, the U.S. Postal Service shows the violation notice was delivered on June 2. Waycaster did not respond to subsequent questions for this story.
Operating a mine without a permit is subject to a maximum fine of $5,000 per day. In addition, failure to comply may result in the issuance of an injunction or the imposition of a criminal penalty.
The process for appealing the violation, Akroyd said, is an informal process whereby a mine owner or operator has 30 days to respond. In the meantime, each mine must cease operations until a permit is issued. In the absence of a permit, each mine must initiate and complete reclamation of the site within 30 days of receipt of the violation.
What does reclamation mean?
To operate a mine, those seeking a permit are obligated to describe their plans to restore the landscape to the degree possible after mining through a process called reclamation.
Replacing the original topography is not possible, but the application must show how the overburden — leftover topsoil and subsoil — will be replaced and revegetated with specific trees and plants to stabilize the site.
The permit application also requires financial assurance, such as a bond, that reclamation is completed within a specified period of time.
Estimating the number of mining sites that have not been reclaimed across North Carolina is challenging, said Jon Simms, a research technician at the N.C. State University Minerals Research Lab in Asheville.
Some closed mines that predate the state’s mining act may never have been reclaimed, and mines under 1 acre operate beneath the regulatory radar.
But the high costs of mining may self-regulate the number of mines across the landscape, Simms said.
“For small-scale mining to occur, there is a significant capital investment that isn’t feasible for many landowners,” he said.
Land management and reclamation practices often depend on the operator’s standards, UNC Asheville geologist Brittani McNamee said.
“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.”
According to the NCDEQ, there are 12 active mining permits in McDowell County.
Buechel Stone, a Wisconsin-based company, processes dimension stone from raw material quarried in McDowell County. Dimension stone is quarried and then finished for landscaping, buildings or monuments.
CEO Scott Buechel said the costs of mining for natural stone decrease after the initial cost of excavating the surface. Once rock is exposed, material is removed from vertical ledges of granite and the topsoil and subsoil are stockpiled for future reclamation of the site.
“We are doing things to try and minimize the look from the outside. We’re in the mountains, so it’s harder to hide,” he said. “We want to be good neighbors in the community. You do that by trying to do the right thing.”
Chuck Abernathy, executive director of the McDowell Economic Development Association, said that, in addition to mining operations in McDowell County, other businesses in the county enhance rock into a finished product. Abernathy said the impact of mining operations in the county has not been an issue in the past.
“Are we used to it?” he asked. “Is our tolerance level high?” Residents’ opinions of the operations are “not a problem that I hear about,” he said.
Conservationist and author Jay Leutze disagrees. He often drives U.S. Route 221 from his home in Avery County to Asheville.
“Whenever I drive on the road, I think, ‘What in the hell?’” Leutze said. “A whole landscape is becoming a sacrifice zone to the decorative stone industry. No other economic activity wants to locate close to it.”
Leutze authored “Stand Up That Mountain,” which chronicles a rural community’s conflict with a mining operation near his home and within view of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
Leutze and his neighbors ultimately convinced regulators to shut the mine based on an argument that the operation had an impact on views from the Appalachian Trail.
“The U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service have worked very hard to develop standards for impacts on viewshed where viewsheds are valuable; meaning that they are part of your experience,” he said.
“Part of the purpose of the AT is to provide panoramic views. The viewshed gets protection in places where the NPS and USFS have located the trail to an opening that has an investment.”
For private individuals, legally protecting views from their home is more challenging, if not impossible.
“The only thing the law can get its mind around is the impact on the public land user,” Leutze said.
“At what point does your neighbor create a nuisance that begins to impact the use and enjoyment of your own property? Is there a trigger point where they cross the line?”
Typically, nuisance claims most often raised, he said, are related to smoke, noxious fumes, dust or noise. Developing a case that a degraded view from your property is a nuisance is more difficult to establish because the quality of a view is abstract and subjective.
A neighbor would have to show a “significant impact” for the agency to deny a permit, Vinson of NCDEQ said, but there is not a precise definition of significant impact because the value of a viewshed is subjective. The Mining Act does not define viewshed standards.
“What may be questionable to me may not be to another person,” he said.
In some cases, the agency requires visual screenings, such as trees or berms, to minimize the visibility of a mine from public highways, parks or residential areas, if the state determines that screenings are “feasible and desirable.”
“If we deny a permit, we have to tell them what they can do to mitigate it,” he said.
The aftermath of a mine is not just aesthetic. Mines create environmental contaminants, primarily sediment, McNamee said.
In North Carolina, rock aggregates for road building and dimension stone for landscaping and construction often come from granite. While most of the byproduct can be repurposed, many of the minerals in granite get smaller and smaller over time.
“However, microscopic particles build up really quickly, and we’re having a hard time figuring out what to use it for, especially in the large quantities (the industry) is producing,” McNamee said.
“One of the biggest issues with mining operations across the globe are fine particles. They are so fine you can’t do anything with them.”
In addition to byproduct, the “overburden” or “tailings” — the leftover topsoil and subsurface removed to extract rock — must be stored, according to Simms.
The material is “prone to erosion and a potential source of runoff and sedimentation in streams and groundwater,” Simms said.
Buffers or forests may capture the sediment, but paved surfaced and dirt roads provide direct access for microsediment to enter waterways where the fine particles don’t settle. The debris creates murky conditions and eventually flows into the base of the watershed, disrupting the ecosystem.
“Some critters like muddy waters, but not everything,” McNamee said.
The ground disturbed by mining is also ripe for infestation by nonnative invasive plants, said Andy Tait of EcoForesters, a nonprofit organization in Asheville that specializes in invasive species control.
Even small clearings, he said, provide an opportunity for invasives to gain a foothold and spread.
“Some invasives will grow straight out of cracks in bare rock,” he said. “What may seem like inhospitable sites can be overtaken by high-threat (invasive) trees.”
Sites along major roads are more likely to be infested since roads are a vector for the spread of invasive seeds.
Thoughtful replanting of open sites and monitoring the area are imperative, Tait said, especially if mine sites are near land with high conservation value, such as sections of Pisgah National Forest in McDowell County that border the U.S. 221 corridor.
David Jones, the owner of the property adjacent to Mountain Mist mine, said he sees the effects of mining more now than ever before.
“When I moved here 32 years ago, there was some mining,” Jones said. “They were getting rock out of one little spot. I had no idea what it was going to become.”
Years ago, he said, the quarry operators did everything they could to address the erosion issues impacting his yard. Now the mine next to his property is a gash and an eyesore, he said. His son agreed.
“As I’ve gotten older, my worldview has changed, and it’s impossible for me to ignore it any longer,” Cody Jones said. “I worry about the long-term effects of these types of operations. It’s kind of disappointing and depressing.”