On the surface, this story is about sand and gravel. And it’s not, actually. It's a story about how stone becomes sand and gravel. And about the people who built homes around what used to be a dormant quarry in Westerly. It’s the first installment of a two-part series.
Charlestown resident Denise Rhodes lives about 1,000 feet away from this quarry, just across the border in Westerly. She invited local town council members and Rhode Island Public Radio to her house on a day when the town issued a “Code Red alert.”
The town issues Code red alerts when the neighboring quarry operator blasts granite stone. The town of Charlestown sends those alerts by phone or email to residents who have signed up to receive alerts.
The blast on this day shook and rattled Rhodes’ entire two story-house.
“I just don't know what we're going to do,” said Rhodes. “It was never like this.”
It was never like this, because active operations by Sullivan Granite Company Quarries at this quarry ended in 1969, as described by a 1981 Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission document. Back in the day, granite from this quarry was extracted to make slabs and columns for buildings, and handcrafted monuments, tombstones, and statues. In the late 1800s, the granite industry drove and dominated Westerly’s economy.
“Even back in the 1800s they didn’t blast like this,” said Rhodes. “There would just be a ding and then they would take a huge piece of quarry stone out.”
In late 2010, a Connecticut-based company formerly known as Copar Quarries began to lease the quarry from its current owner, Westerly Granite. Copar Quarries changed its name earlier this year to Armetta, LLC. But since it’s made headlines and it’s known around town as Copar Quarries, for this story, we’ll continue to call it by its old name.
The first time Rhodes and several of her neighbors heard the blast, they didn’t know what was happening.
“The ground shook and it was like—all I could think of was an earthquake,” said Rhodes.
“My son was actually underneath a truck, working on a truck, and he thought the truck was going to come down right on top of him,” said Steve Dubois, who lives in Bradford, a village in Westerly. “We thought a plane crashed or something big crashed in our area. We had no idea what was happening."
"I was home with my children and we were scared out of our minds,” said Kristi MacDonough, a Charlestown resident. “I thought we were at war. I thought we had been bombed."
These homeowners say they didn’t sign up to live next to an active quarry. They chose to build their houses in the area, because it’s green, rural, and close to the ocean.
Now Copar Quarries has machines with the capacity to crush more than 150 tons of stone per hour, according to documents by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These homeowners say they have to put up with the stone-crushing machines every weekday, sometimes on Saturdays, in addition to blasts every 4 to 6 weeks.
Copar Quarries has not responded to various requests for an interview, but that request is still open.
Dubois said he went to the Westerly Town Hall back in 1990 before he bought land and built his house to ask if it would ever be an active quarry again.
“The guy who owned it, James J. Romanella, all through Westerly he turned all those old quarries into housing developments,” said Dubois. “So that’s what we figured was going on there. And that’s what we were told by the town zoning official [at the time] Anthony Giordano. We did do our homework. We did go there [town hall] and ask what that property was and it was residential land.”
Over the years, the quarry has had different owners. After active quarrying ended in the late 1960s, some of that land was preserved as open space and agricultural land; some of it was zoned residential and sold off to developers, according to zoning maps by the Town of Westerly (maps to be posted soon).
The Westerly town manager said she couldn’t grant an interview for this story, because the town is still in the middle of different legal battles with Copar Quarries and Westerly Granite.
Dubois says at some point in the recent past a section of the quarry property was zoned light industrial, according to a zoning certificate that Dubois obtained from the Town of Westerly. (He and a couple of other neighbors also launched a lawsuit against Copar.)
“We weren't notified of any zoning change. Never read it in the newspaper,” said Dubois. “And somehow miraculously it appeared on the tax records in 2004 as industrial. And then they [Westerly town officials] said they changed it, but we can’t find—there’s no record in the Westerly town hall that shows that that land was ever changed from residential to light industrial.”
Dubois said the Town of Westerly's 1981 comprehensive plan recognizes only the Bradford Mill as the only existing industrial site in Bradford. The rest is described as residential and vacant land.
The 2007 zoning certificate allows stone and gravel to be mined and crushed at the quarry. However, those types of mining and crushing activities are not allowed on properties zoned “light industrial,” like this one, according to the zoning narrative on page three of the zoning certificate. Those mining and crushing activities are allowed on properties zoned light industrial with a “special use permit,” except on properties that have operated uninterrupted as mine, quarries, and sand and gravel pits in the past and that continue to do so.
That’s because activities from what’s called the “extraction industry” were happening before zoning ordinances were adopted. And the right to continue to mine and crush on those properties has been grandfathered in, unless companies stop operating for 12 months in a row, according to the abandonment clause in the Town of Westerly’s zoning ordinances. But in this case, the “abandonment” issue has been challenged.
The Superior Court in Rhode Island recognized those grandfather rights when Copar and Westerly Granite sued the town of Westerly. The parties settled and signed an agreement earlier this year in February.
“It’s terrible,” said Enoch MacDonough, Charlestown resident. “I read it and was actually sick to my stomach when I read the agreement because it gave them everything, and it gave us—it gave taxpayers and neighbors, zero. Zero relief. And it gave the company the chance to just keep operating as they want.”
Part of the agreement stipulates that the town of Westerly may not pass any ordinances that will negatively affect operations at the quarry now or in the future. That means they can’t put limits on the intensity of their activities, hours of operation, and manner of operation. The agreement affirms that Copar Quarries and Westerly Granite Company never abandoned their quarrying activities, and therefore their rights are protected.
The EPA cited Copar Quarries for not notifying the agency of its initial startup date in January 2011. This quarry has been described as “idle” and “abandoned” in many old documents, including on page 17 of a 1978 document from the Historic Preservation Commission, inspections by the Department of Environmental Management, and an environmental assessment report signed off by the current owner of the quarry property when he proposed to build a cell phone tower. So neighbors wonder how a company that started to operate in 2011 has any grandfather rights. Denise Rhodes says the agreement opens up a can of worms, because there are many abandoned quarries across the state.
"We have abandoned quarries on Klondike Road,” she said. “One of the companies—it’s not Copar—but one of the companies is cleaning up now because they want to go in there and start doing stuff and that hasn’t even been used in 40 years."
These families say they have to deal with dust migrating from the quarry on top of dealing with the noise. They’re worried the dust has silica, a byproduct of crushing quartz, granite, and other minerals, because silica is a known carcinogen.
Homeowners say they're also unsettled by the long list of violations issued to the company by both the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the EPA. The agencies have cited them for being negligent when it comes to worker safety and for violating the Clean Air Act, among other things. Homeowners say state agencies aren’t doing enough to protect their health and wellbeing. They’re disappointed in how they’ve handled inspections.
The DEM has investigated the quarry over several concerns about air and water pollution, trash, and the surrounding wetlands. On the dust issue, the DEM issued one violation to Copar Quarries last year. David Chopy is the chief of the DEM’s office of compliance and inspection.
“We had our inspector park his vehicle at the property line, between the quarry and the private property, clean his windshield and wait for 45 minutes and he just did a finger swipe with a glove on his windshield,” said Chopy. “And he was able to detect the crystalline silica that’s associated with gravel operations.”
Chopy said the goal of this inspection was to determine if there was a dust violation, not to determine if the dust was made up of silica.
“And we don’t have any standards for silica. There’s no statute and regulation that says you can’t be over this amount,” said Chopy. “So it would be difficult for us to do the sampling. And if we did the sampling, I’m not sure what we would do with the information, because we don’t have any standard to compare it to, to say whether it would be or it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Federal criteria and standards do exist for preventing diseases that arise from exposure to crystalline silica, but Chopy says those standards only apply to workers exposed to crystalline silica dust at their workplace.
And those blasts—homeowners say the blasts are also compromising the structural integrity of their homes and private wells. Many of these homes sit along the same granite rock that extends to the quarry. And they’re worried about the aquifers that supply water to Bradford and Westerly. Many old documents from the early 1980s describe the strong interest within the community to protect the aquifers that intersect the quarry. The quarry sits on the edge of what’s called the “aquifer protection overlay district,” which is based on the aquifer’s recharge area, where water sinks through the ground and becomes part of the aquifer.
The Division of the State Fire Marshal regulates blasting in the state. Deputy state fire marshal Richard James says based on the company’s seismographic records, Copar Quarries is blasting well within the state limits.
“In the past few years, we've introduced legislation to limit blasting on rainy, overcast days,” said James. “The cloud level is low. The air shock hits the clouds and comes back down and it's like thunder and lightning hitting the roof of your house. But that has died in committee always—there’s not many changes we can do to blasting. Nothing we can do about it.”
There’s nothing they can do about it, because the state limits are based on federal standards. And those federal standards are based on a study conducted by the federal government in 1980. James goes says blast experts say: there’s no chance blasts could cause any cosmetic cracks, even the size of a hair strand, if blasting is done within the regulatory limits.
That’s no comfort to the homeowners who have to deal with the blasts every few weeks. Homeowners say they feel like they have nowhere to turn to for help. They say this quarry operation has not only disrupted their quality of life, but it’s also hurt one of their greatest life investments: their homes.
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Rhode Island Public Radio requested through the Freedom of Information Act the citation violations and orders issued to Copar Quarries by the MSHA and the EPA.
Records from MSHA
Records from EPA
The EPA issued Copar Quarries an administrative order to comply with particular standards under the Clean Air Act. Officials with the EPA say that it is their understanding that Copar Quarries has complied with what the company is required to do in the order. As of this summer, the EPA and Copar Quarries were still trying to reach a settlement of the penalties.