The County Commissioners may sign a contract today that will clear the way for a Wakefield Valley limestone quarry operator to begin joining two existing quarries into a single huge pit that will be 500 feet deep.
The commissioners are scheduled to meet with representatives of Lafarge Corp., owner of Redland Genstar Inc., which has sought since 1993 to expand its 42-year-old Medford quarry. The expansion plan won approval from the county Planning and Zoning Commission in 1995, but county government and corporate negotiators have spent three years working out the proposed contract scheduled for discussion today.
"Lowering of the water table is the biggest concern for the county," said Commissioner Julia W. Gouge. None of the three commissioners reported any specific problems with the proposed contract, but said they would listen to the discussion before deciding whether to sign.
The key feature of the contract requires Lafarge to pay for a consultant's study of a technique that could sharply reduce or eliminate the amount of ground water that flows into the first pit. In addition to concerns about the impact on nearby water supply wells, some geologists say the pumping of millions of gallons of water could weaken underground rock, which might cause sinkholes to form.
County officials initially asked the quarry operator to post a $1 million bond to guarantee that it would use the technique, called grouting, to divert ground water from the pit. However, county attorneys say they are satisfied with Lafarge's agreement to finance the study and to negotiate implementation of a grouting plan if the consultant recommends the technique.
"The agreement seems to be the best we could work out," said county attorney Laurell Taylor. "The commissioners are interested in public input, too. If there are concerns, the commissioners want to hear them, but from the standpoint of the staff and technical [aspects], we have reached a level of satisfaction."
Taylor said the commissioners will seek public comments on the consultant's recommendations.
Assistant county attorney Timothy Burke, who represented the county in the negotiations, said Lafarge executives balked at posting a $1 million bond for grouting, a new technique that might not be feasible.
Grouting involves digging a trench upstream from the quarry and lining it with a water-absorbing material. The idea is to prevent ground water from reaching the pits, reducing the amount that the quarry operator pumps out.
Lafarge representatives could not be reached for comment last week.
Commissioner Donald I. Dell said grouting "sounds like a good idea. It sounds like an expensive idea, but it would decrease all the costs of those pumps they have to pump millions of gallons of water out of there."
Commissioner Robin M. Frazier said she wanted to learn more about the proposed contract, but "I really don't know that there's anything I'm uncomfortable with if Genstar is comfortable with it."
Lafarge owns 776 acres in the Wakefield Valley. The expansion plan will add 69 acres to the 436-acre Medford quarry site.
John Gease, director of real estate and public relations for the Genstar division of Lafarge, has said that the expansion is to lengthen the life of the quarry, not to increase production.