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Tuesday, March 8, 2022

After years of dittering, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance has re-discovered quarries

They plan to do the same thing they did before expecting different results

By Will Collette

In 2013-5, Charlestown’s big story was the Copar quarry operations on the Bradford-Charlestown town line and also the former Morrone site in Charlestown, with a third operation starting up in Richmond. Copar’s owner had served federal prison time for racketeering and most of the company executives had serious criminal, civil or ethical records.

They ran their quarries like criminal enterprises. They ran up more debt than any other business of its size I have ever researched. Ultimately they went out of business when the crooks running the company started to steal from each other and the business imploded.

Convicted felon and Copar owner Phil Armetta (photo courtesy of the
The Middletown Eye and Stephen DeVoto)
All the while, the town councils of Charlestown and Westerly looked inept and stupid in their feckless attempts to stop Copar.

Despite being told by Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero that Charlestown had more than enough “police power” at its disposal to curb Copar, the CCA-controlled council, publicly citing fear of lawsuits (and perhaps had other, more private reasons), decided to try to get state legislation giving them permission to regulate operating quarries.

They counted on then newly elected state Rep. Blake “Flip” Filippi to get that legislation for them after botching their first attempt (see below). Flip had also filed a lawsuit for the neighbors, promising them that this too would bring Copar to heal. Predictably, neither of these approaches worked. As has been the case with Filippi, Flip simply flopped.

But now in 2022, another CCA-controlled council is going to try once again with the strategy that failed almost a decade ago – getting state legislation that gives Charlestown permission it really doesn’t need to regulate quarries - in the hope that they will get a different result.

Ah, the questions this raises!

👉The first is where the hell has the CCA been on this issue in the ensuing years?

👉Why did the town allow a new operator to re-start the old Morrone sand pit after it had been abandoned by Copar?

👉And why not go back to the original proposal from our town solicitor to use town police power to deal with the nuisance and noise caused by recently initiated quarrying operations?

We already have an ordinance for that:

§ 147-2 License and fees.
B. All licenses granted under the provisions of this section shall be granted subject to the condition that the licensed premises shall be kept open to the inspection of the Chief of Police and the Town Council at all times during the business hours and subject to the provisions of the Charlestown Code of Ordinances and Rhode Island General Laws and also subject to such rules and regulations as the Town Council may from time to time promulgate with reference to such licensed premises.

👉Is there no institutional memory at all in the CCA where lessons learned may be found? Maybe that ties in with the CCA’s inability to ever admit it isn’t perfect and does indeed make mistakes. After all, this new initative is being spearheaded by CCA Council member Bonnie Van Slyke.

👉Why is Charlestown so afraid to regulate operating quarries when they do not hesitate to drop new ordinances and regulations on existing businesses all over town? Lawsuits? Hey, Charlestown gets sued all the time and often for less worthy issues than exercising proper police powers.

👉What makes quarries so special that Charlestown will not touch them without state permission?

During the Copar crisis, hopes were expressed that someone, somewhere would do something. 

But there are no federal laws and agencies with express jurisdiction over quarries, with one exception. 

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) does have jurisdiction over health and safety conditions that affect workers within the facility. They have no authority outside the mine. And MSHA did cite Copar and other Charlestown quarries for violations.

EPA and the state DEM have the power to enforce against violations of the Clean Air, Clean Water and waste disposal laws. Copar was in fact cited by both the EPA and DEM, but that didn’t slow them down.

Waiting for federal or state enforcement can be frustrating even when the law is clearly on your side. As for getting new laws, it’s worth looking back at Charlestown’s 2014 experience especially since the CCA-controlled Council is counting on passage of unnecessary new state legislation. Let’s review what happened last time.

After months of dithering, the Council, then led by CCA leader Boss Tom Gentz, called a special meeting on June 20, 2014 to review, approve and authorize sending draft legislation up to Providence.

Rep. Donna Walsh warned the Council that this was the last day of the General Assembly when new bills almost never get introduced, never mind passed.

Such was the fate of this bill although Gentz did get some legislators to hear the bill and was given a list of flaws to fix ASAP if there was to be any hope of passage. Boss Gentz sat on this information for five weeks. The bill did not pass. Naturally, Boss Gentz blamed the General Assembly, not the CCA's or his own incompetence.

The CCA tried again in 2015 with their new magic man, Blake “Flip” Filippi who defeated Donna in the 2014 election. 

They sent Flip to introduce the bill Charlestown really wanted, the one that failed in 2014. House Bill No. 5676 would give the town of Charlestown powers it already has to regulate quarries. But as often happens, Flip’s bill died in committee while being “held for further study” never to emerge.

The one piece of state legislation on quarries that was enacted after Copar is a 2015 law that required DEM to write regulations to bring about effective dust control measures at mines. Yet the DEM acknowledges that it can't enforce this law.

An added irony is that Flip Filippi claimed credit for the anti-dust bill even though it was Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy’s bill. Filippi’s two bills failed to get out of committee.

Recently, Charlestown Zoning Officer Joe Warner issued a cease-and-desist order against the Miozzi quarry for illegal expansion and other violations. The company is claiming it is above any town regulation because the quarry has been in constant operation for decades. The case is tied up in court.

Miozzi claims immunity from regulation because his operation is “grandfathered” due to uninterrupted operation for decades. But the Miozzi claim of continuous operations is simply not true as the following MSHA records show the site was abandoned after Copar left the scene. 

When Miozzi re-started operations, MSHA issued him a new mine number as they do when any NEW mine opens up.

Note under “Mine Status,” the classification is “Abandoned.” Also note the mine number is 3700201.

Here’s the new MSHA listing and the new mine number, 3700232.

Same site, new and different mine and thus illegal under Charlestown current mining ordinance that prohibits NEW quarries.

Now what?

It is necessary to review and understand what has happened since 2013 to figure out the smartest steps to take.

The Council should have listened to Peter Ruggiero in 2014 when he told them to first use the town’s police powers to stop a nuisance. Sure mine operators will sue as do most businesses when faced with regulation that cuts into their bottom line.

We should go back to the old drafts of town ordinances to regulate mining with a special emphasis on making sure quarries and sand pits are bonded and will reclaim their sites when mining ends. 

We need a “Bad Actor” ordinance to block permits and licenses to businesses and individuals with shady records.

In other words, we should avoid doing those things that have failed us in the past and use approaches that have some track record of success.