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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Charlestown talks about mining again at Monday meeting

Maybe this year, let’s hope Charlestown and Westerly get it right
By Will Collette
Active, inactive or likely mine sites in Charlestown based on examination of scarred areas in this Google Earth image.
It’s great to see that both the Westerly and Charlestown Town Councils seem to be determined to come up with a way to regulate local mining operations. Driven by all the problems at the scandalous Copar-Armetta quarry on the Westerly-Charlestown town line, both Councils have danced with this issue since 2012, with little to show for it. (CLICK HERE for all our Copar coverage).

The issue will come up again at the Charlestown Town Council’s regular meeting on Monday night.

In a nutshell, it’s problematic, indeed probably unconstitutional, to pass laws directed at one business like an expressly anti-Copar law. But passing ordinances or regulations to cover the entire local mining industry has been too scary for either Westerly or Charlestown council members to take on in any serious way. So both towns have suffered significant paralysis on this issue.

This area has always had lots of open pit sites where vast amounts of granite, sand and gravel have been extracted, leaving the landscape pock-marked with holes that often represent a severe threat of death or serious injury to the young and curious, not to mention pollution sources from mine run-off.

Our area also has active granite, sand and gravel mining operations. These sites are often noisy eyesores that plague their neighbors with a mechanical cacophony, dust and heavy truck activity.

By definition, mines are places where the earth is deliberately ripped open (called “disturbance” in mine industry terms) so that mass quantities of some saleable commodity can be hauled away. Our local granite quarries and sand and gravel pits are every bit as much like strip mines for coal.

Once all the material that can be profitably removed is gone, you are left with a large open hole, a hole begging to be filled.

I spent 20 of my 25 years in Washington, DC watching this process happen and working with local citizens groups to minimize the harm to people and the environment. Ten of those years were as staff director for the Citizens Coal Council where I worked with group who were trying to get the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA, which was about as good a piece of environmental legislation as you can get) to be effectively enforced.

The other ten years were spent as national organizing director for the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes (now called the Center for Health and Environmental Justice) where I helped citizens deal with projects to fill old mine holes with everything from liquid hazardous waste to liquid pig manure.
Mining operations at the long-dormant Westerly Granite Co. property in the village of Bradford, R.I., began in late 2010. The headaches — literally and figuratively — began about a year later and persist today. (Steve Dubios)
Mining operations at the long-dormant Westerly Granite Co. property in the village of Bradford, R.I., began in late 2010. The headaches — literally and figuratively — began about a year later and persist today. (Steve Dubois)
To adequately protect a community from the effects of mining, government officials should look at regulating the three distinct phases in the mining process: (1) pre-mining planning and permitting; (2) active mining and (3) reclamation.

Inactive or abandoned mines can fit into all three phases, especially when someone decides to resume mining or comes up with another idea for using the hole in the ground.

To date, the Charlestown Town Council’s main effort has been to craft a resolution every year since 2013 to send to the General Assembly, asking the legislature to grant Charlestown permission to regulate mining. Every year, that resolution fails.

That’s what Charlestown plans to do again – another resolution asking the state for permission. I would remind them of the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, each time expecting a different result.

Charlestown and many of the Copar neighbors seem to put a lot of faith in Republican state Rep. Blake “Flip” Filippi who, from the time he emerged on the political stage, has promised to be the savior.

However, Flip’s only two achievements have been to get a lot of publicity for himself and to take credit for the passage of H. 5680 Sub A, which was actually Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy’s bill. That bill directed the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to enact regulations to control dust piles.

The law was passed almost two years ago in June 2015. To date, there has not been even a hint that DEM has even begun drafting regulations, never mind put them into effect and enforce them. DEM has said it lacks the capacity.

This year’s Charlestown resolution only deals with some of the most annoying aspects of active mining sites (e.g. blasting, dust, noise) while making no mention of pre-mining permitting or post-mining reclamation.

While active mining operations are often terrible neighbors who desperately need to be regulated, the best way to weed out rogue operations is an affective permitting process that asks the right questions and keeps bad actors from getting permits.

Further, the greatest physical danger a mine poses to the public is after mining stops. If a mine is left unreclaimed, it is a disaster waiting to happen. 

As anyone who followed the Copar story knows, Copar’s neighbors endured a living hell. But the one fatality occurred on May 25, 2015 when a young man went off the “highwall” (the artificial cliff created by mining).

We have these types of deadly hazards all over Charlestown and Westerly. Charlestown answer has been an ordinance prohibiting swimming in old quarries. When I was still working at the Citizens Coal Council, I did the research nationwide to find out how deadly abandoned mines are and produced THIS REPORT called “Old Mines Kill.”

Maybe, as our Town Planner and Council member Denise Rhodes told the Westerly Sun last month, Charlestown will try some different angles to achieve more than just the limited goals outlined in this year’s quixotic resolution to be sent to the General Assembly.

I sure hope so.