Alabama’s growing number of rock quarries has sparked the public interest in these excavation sites. Our state, with its large deposits of limestone and granite, is one of the nation’s leading producers of sand, rock and gravel. It is third in the country for limestone, and is among the top five masonry cement-producing states, according to the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association. With the suburban sprawl characteristic of modern times, rock quarries are closer than ever to residential, commercial and industrial areas. “The cities have spread out,” said Gus Edwards, a spokesman for the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association. Now you’re finding a lot of areas that were rural, where people had sand and gravel quarries around them now have big homes next to them.” The encroachment of residential and commercial areas increases the number of Alabamians affected by these quarries. Neighbors complain of vibrations, flying rocks, dust, and noise pollution from blasting and heavy machinery traffic. A more serious grievance is the development of silicosis, which is a disease brought from the overexposure to crystalline silica found in dust from rock crushing and grinding.
In addition to lowering the quality of life of neighboring Alabamians, the excavation sites have a devastating impact on the environment. They distress the quantity of the surrounding water, as well as the quality of the air and water. Quarries can even dissipate wildlife, as in the case of Chewacla Creek, in which several imperiled species are now believed to be gone. The creek is virtually dried up. As these problems become more pervasive, communities are speaking out. Lee County residents have protested against three quarries in the previous years. Shelby County residents have fought two quarry proposals, and Limestone residents have battled two. The Morgan County community has tried unsuccessfully to get the County Commission to prevent a quarry from reopening at Massey. Auburn residents have complained that a nearby quarry was causing sinkholes and sucking a beautiful creek in the Auburn area dry.
With such active excavation in Alabama, residents and conservationists are demanding more regulatory control over the quarries. Many communities are unable to regulate the location of the quarries because permit operators do not need zoning approval, although they do need water pollution permits to begin operations, and most also need air pollution permits. Because Alabama has no mining act, “the environmental permits have become the only permit that people can potentially use to keep a quarry or an industry from an area,” said Scott Hughes, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. “So people are using environmental permits as a zoning tool.” Regulation of this industry is a pressing need in the state. After all, quarries have an estimated life of 100 years. Control is the only way to mitigate environmental and social consequences. “In the absence of local zoning control or an applicable state law, Alabama’s ability to regulate quarries is seriously on the rocks.” State Senator Myron Penn (D-Union Springs) has filed a bill to bring some sanity to the regulation of these quarries. He has become a champion for the thousands of citizens who are demanding stronger regulation of the out-of-control quarry operators.
I suspect the first term lawmaker has already run into the special interests on this bill. Hopefully the Senator, who has already impressed his colleagues in the Senate with his knowledge of issues and his work ethic, will prevail. One thing is quite evident: Senator Penn is not afraid to take on Corporate America, and that is most impressive.
This story originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of The Jere Beasley Report.