Rutland Herald Commentary, August 10, 2006

Beware blasting next to high school

Residents of Chester, Andover and Cavendish who send their children to Green Mountain Union High School should be paying special attention to the aggregate quarrying operation being proposed by O'Neil Sand & Gravel, LLC.

Extraction of sand and gravel took place near the high school for several years, but Chester has seen nothing like what O'Neil is now proposing in this residential neighborhood. O'Neil has hired experts who have submitted plans to the Planning Commission and zoning board that indicate there will be no significant impacts to the neighborhood from the expansion of the mining operation to include drilling, blasting and crushing of rock, called aggregate.

However, the School Board and parents can learn from the experience of the neighbors of the J.P. Carrara & Sons Inc. aggregate quarry in Clarendon, which has been operating for 18 years. That quarry, too, was proposed in a residential zone and has been the source of repeated litigation throughout the quarry's operation.

Nobody knows better than the people living next to the Carrara quarry just how serious the impacts from a crushed rock quarry are. Consider just the blasting. Carrara began blasting above ground in 1990, and almost immediately the neighbors filed a petition to revoke the Carrara's Act 250 permit because of noise, fly-rock, and violation of a finding of fact in the permit that said that blasting at the quarry would have no impacts beyond 200 feet.

The Environmental Board found that there were impacts beyond 200 feet, and Carrara had to reapply to the district commission to get that finding removed from their permit. The expert witness who testified that the Carrara quarry would not have any impacts beyond 200 feet is the same expert that O'Neil has hired for its Chester quarry proposal. The expert witness's testimony was shown to be not credible.

Now that same witness is telling the Chester Planning Commission and zoning board that drilling, blasting and crushing rock 1,400 feet from the high school will not cause any impacts. O'Neil proposes to use 5,600 to 11,000 pounds of explosives with 120 pounds per delay in their blasting loads, which is far more than Carrara. In comparison, the J.P. Carrara & Sons quarry is permitted to blast 2,500 pounds with 116 ppd.

It is inconceivable that GMUHS and its neighbors will not experience the same sorts of impacts experienced by the Carrara quarry neighbors, and probably worse due to O'Neil using even larger loads of explosives. These neighbors testified in Environmental Court in May that when a blast goes off, they are frightened; there is a loud noise; it is like being in an earthquake or like fighter jets flying over; it is shocking; they have to hold onto something if they are in the shower; and the blasts are felt quite strongly between 1,200 and 1,900 feet away. They allege that damage has been caused to the infrastructure at the neighboring mobile home park, that one mobile home came apart after blasting, that there are cracks in basement walls and windows of homes. Some neighbors report that computers are affected by the blasting. Complaints about the Carrara quarry operations are too numerous to recount here.

Given the major public investment in the regional school, it seems unwise for the town of Chester to rely solely on the testimony of O'Neil's paid expert for assurances that the school and neighbors will not be seriously affected by the blasting so nearby. At the very least, the Select Board and School Board should hire an independent consultant to evaluate the proposal on behalf of the town and the school.

Quarry blasting at the proposed explosive weights and next to a school is highly questionable. Will announcements be made over the intercom system at the school when a blast is about to go off? Will all computers have to be turned off to avoid damage? Won't the blasting be shocking to the students and disrupt their work? Who will be responsible when allegations are made that blasting has caused damage at the school? It is extremely hard to prove that damage was caused by blasting.

Just ask the Carrara quarry's neighbors. They know the drill. Quarry experts say that blasting never causes any damage. Carrara's expert witness on structural damage testified in Environmental Court that any problems in the neighborhood were caused by wind. Perhaps GMUHS should invest in meteorological monitoring so that they can defend against such ludicrous claims when the eventual damage happens from quarrying and it is up to the high school to prove that the quarry caused the damage.

This proposal may be a winner for O'Neil, but it is a loser for the neighborhood, the Chester community, and the students whose education will be disrupted. At its meeting on Aug. 14, Chester's zoning board would be wise to reconsider its permission to grant a permit to blast and drill in a residential zone next to the regional high school. If it does not, GMUHS and the community are in for a long, expensive fight that could last decades. The Carrara quarry neighbors can tell you all about it.

Annette Smith of Danby is executive director Vermonters for a Clean Environment.