Mining project digs up concern

Havre de Grace: Residents near a quarry oppose moving mounds containing material that might damage the lungs.

February 13, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Owen Neighbours, director of mining services for Arundel Sand & Gravel Co., takes a deep breath as he scans the company's huge rock quarry near Havre de Grace.

The air, he says, is clean. Monitoring tests show better air quality here than in many other parts of Harford County. That is proof, he says, that the company can safely consolidate two piles of mining waste into a single 150-foot mountain elsewhere on its property so it can mine the land underneath.

Area residents aren't so sure and have objected to the proposed move of the material, which contains crystalline silica, a substance that some experts say can damage lungs in a way similar to asbestos.

Several hearings on the proposal have drawn fierce opposition from residents. A final hearing is scheduled Feb. 23.

Area residents worry in particular about the health of pupils at Meadowvale Elementary School, a few hundred yards from the quarry.

"It can cause silicosis, and this can cause death," said Bob Carson. Carson, who lives in Susquehanna Hills, is a leader of the community opposition to Arundel's expansion.

But Neighbours says that monitoring has revealed crystalline silica in the quarry at levels 1/100th of the exposure limit recommended by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. The testing, at four sites at the quarry, was done in cooperation with the Maryland Department of the Environment over nearly two years, ending in 1999.

Neighbours said the air tests show the silica level at the quarry to be well below the range commonly found in most urban and rural environments.

Silica dust is at the heart of community opposition to Arundel's plan, which would form a single mountain of waste approximately a half-mile long and an eighth of a mile wide.

The move would allow the company to mine rock - used primarily for road construction - from the ground beneath the piles.

Residents of communities surrounding the quarry, including Susquehanna Hills and Meadowvale, argue that moving the piles represents a potential health threat.

The dust contains crystalline silica, and it can damage the lining of the lungs, said Valerie H. Twanmoh, a Bel Air lawyer who serves as the people's counsel for Harford County.

Kelly Frank, a spokeswoman for Arundel, said the concern about silica results from misinformation.

She said the air-quality tests were enough to convince the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Harford County Health Department that there was no evidence of any airborne health threat from the quarry.

MDE has granted Arundel conditional approval of a permit needed to move the overburden, or mining waste. It stipulates, however, that the company must first obtain zoning approval from the county - the subject of the hearings now under way.

In his summary of issues related to the approval of Arundel's permit, C. Edmon Larrimore, administrator of MDE's mining program, wrote: "Any potential increase of crystalline silica as a result of the proposed relocation of overburden will be minimal."

He said moving the piles would be similar in impact to a construction site where soil is graded, stockpiled or removed.

Addressing the concerns over the elementary school pupils, Larrimore said that an independent air-quality and occupational services consultant hired by Arundel conducted interviews with school officials and the county school board.

Larrimore said the interviews revealed no pattern of absenteeism or chronic illness at the school or quarry.

The consultant, Rebecca Moreland, said during a county zoning hearing last week that it might take 20 years before seeing any harmful affects of silica on the body. Moreland is vice president of Baltimore-based Chesapeake Occupational Health Services Inc.

The zoning hearing examiners' meetings are similar to a trial, and under cross-examination from Twanmoh, Moreland also said that children are particularly susceptible to silica diseases.

Moreland, who is paid $250 an hour when working as a consultant to Arundel, said her health surveys did not find a worker at the quarry suffering from silicosis.

"At any time, have you ever been asked by Arundel ... to do a health screening, measurement or even a health survey for nearby residents who are exposed to quarry activities, as opposed to employees who work there?" Twanmoh asked. "No," replied Moreland.

Residents complain that the new mound of overburden would be an eyesore in the neighborhood.

Bill Aspinall, manager of the quarry, disagrees. He said Susquehanna Hills residents would be able to see the pile between the trees during winter months, but it would not show above the trees.

Blasting was another concern of residents.

Aspinall said there would be no blasting done beyond the area already designated by its current permit.

He acknowledged, however, that blasting would take place closer to some homes.

Arundel's permit allows blasting to take place within 1,500 feet of homes in Meadowvale. Most of the blasting, Frank said, has been no closer than 2,200 feet from the homes.

Moving the piles of overburden could be the lesser of two evils for people living around the 670-acre quarry.

"If we can't store it on site, we will have to truck it off site," said Neighbours. This would involve trucks traveling along Route 155 to an undisclosed site.

Although the company acknowledged that it might take up to 15 years to combine the two piles of mining waste, Neighbours said it would not be a continuous process.

"We will do it in phases, lasting about three years each," he said. The plan is to build a 20-foot high mound of dirt that would serve as a sound barrier, then fill in behind it. The process would be repeated until the move is completed.

"We will move the piles," said Neighbours. "It will create the least impact on everyone concerned if we can keep them on site."

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