Endangered heelsplitter may halt rock quarry
May 22nd, 2018
By Brian Garner, The News & Reporter
At the same time an informal group known as the Farmers & Friends of Fishing Creek was marshaling their forces and reasons for why they didn’t want the proposed Fishing Creek Rock Quarry in their neighborhood, a well-known environmental law group was working on a similar track trying to protect the Fishing Creek environment. And a freshwater mussel called the Carolina heelsplitter may be the key to the whole issue.
Michael Corley is the upstate coordinator for the South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP). He described the organization as an environmental non-profit organization that provides legal services to community groups, environmental groups, citizens and even municipalities, “really anyone who needs legal services to help protect the environment.” He sat down with The N&R recently to detail how his organization got involved in the discussion on the proposed granite quarry, planned by the Hard rock Aggregates mining concern.
As a staff attorney for the project, Corley says he routinely reviews public notices of permit applications to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or other environmental agencies. The SCELP reviews these notices to keep up with what’s going on and so they can inform stakeholders.
“I was reading public notices and happened to see this project” Corley said, “and the first thing that popped into my head was I had prior knowledge of Fishing Creek (the SCELP had previously handled a case for clients in the area) and I knew that Fishing Creek was an environmentally and ecologically valuable resource, and a resource that was really important to a lot of land use, farming and that sort of thing. I also knew that it was an area where the Carolina heelsplitter lived,” he said.
“It seemed problematic to me that a mine would be located in that site that was so close to Fishing Creek,” he said.
The first thing Corley did was reach out to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and said ‘I know there’s Carolina heelsplitters in this area.
“The FWS has done a lot of work to help the heelsplitter recover and thrive, they’ve committed a lot of money and time to it, so it’s something they take really seriously,” Corley said.
The FWS responded and confirmed they had identified this stretch of Fishing Creek as occupied heelsplitter habitat. The Carolina heelsplitter is on the endangered species list, Corley said and is designated under the Endangered Species Act, “which means that it comes with a variety of protections. There are only a few populations of them in the whole world, and one of them happens to be in Chester County, in Fishing Creek.
“I think that in a neat and special way, this is something that this part of the state can be proud of, that you have this unique animal,” he said.
Corley said freshwater mussels are very sensitive to sediment and temperature and many other water quality issues. The fact that Chester County has been able to keep an entire population of them in the county “says a lot about how resources have been managed. But I think it’s also something that’s worth paying attention to, and trying to protect.”
Corley said he confirmed his concerns about the heelsplitter were valid, and he reached out to some environmental groups to tell them of the proposed granite mine along Fishing Creek.
“Their response (to our concerns) was enthusiastic. We got a variety of groups to sign on to the comment letter,” Corley said.
He wrote the comment letter to DHEC on behalf of and with the approval of the national American Rivers organization, the Catawba River keeper Foundation and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation.
The groups lined up behind this comment letter are not all the same what you might call traditional environmental groups, Corley said. The SCELP also wants to take into account the health of the Fishing Creek community.
“The SCELP is an organization that takes cases for environmental protection, but we view community protection within that umbrella – I was excited to find out there was (and totally independent of what I have managed to organize on the environmental side) a vocal community group that was concerned about the environmental issues and also concerned about noise and traffic and a variety of other things,” said Corley.
In his comment letter, Corley said the four signatories, including the SCELP, request a public hearing be held in regard to the permit application (DHEC is planning one but has not scheduled a date, although a hearing may be held in the fall, Corley said). In the letter, Corley and the SCELP expressed concerns about the mining permit sought by Hardrock Aggregates but also about the project’s stormwater plan and authorization, saying the mining permit and the plan are ‘necessarily intertwined.’
The letter, addressed to Jeremy Eddy of DHEC’s Bureau of Land and Waste Management reminds that ‘the South Carolina Mining Act provides that an operating permit shall be denied if the operation will result in violations of water quality standards that have been promulgated by the Department.’ Also, ‘mining regulations provide that an operating permit shall include such terms as are necessary to incorporate best management practices for sediment and erosion control, so as to prevent sedimentation of adjacent water bodies and degradation of the surrounding environment. As it stands, the stormwater permit obtained by Hardrock for this quarry is wholly inadequate to ensure compliance with such standards.’
Further, the letter charges that DHEC issued a NPDES (discharge permit) to the mining company based on ‘inaccurate information provided by Hardrock, and the proposed quarry actually does not meet the requirements for general (discharge)permit coverage.’
Further, the letter points out, the regulations for such permits state a permit can’t be issued ‘if it would adversely affect a listed, endangered or threatened species or its critical habitat.’
The letter charges ‘Hardrock has attempted to diminish this concern with its project, by representing that, while endangered Carolina heelsplitters are known to inhabit the county, “none have been identified on this site.”
That is not true, Corley continues in the comment letter. He writes, the portion of Fishing Creek adjacent to the proposed quarry site is ‘considered by the Fish and Wildlife Service as occupied habitat for the Carolina heelsplitter, with past FWS surveys identifying this species as present.’
Corley commented on assurances given by other projects that have impacted the environment, similar to ones given by Hardrock Aggregates project engineer Jerry Meade that the mining operations would not be affecting the environment around Fishing Creek but would in fact be improving it by doing things such as adding in fresher groundwater that comes up in the mining process back into the creek.
“We always hear the same story at the beginning – ‘we are the conscientious ones, we’re the ones that do things the right way, this is different than these other situations, we’ve designed this so there won’t be any problems’ – we hear the same assurances each time. And very often, that doesn’t bear out; we have all these problem sites that exist that all made those promises on the front end. When I hear assurances like that, because of my experience, I don’t find them particularly compelling,” Corley said.
“As far as the environmental impacts, for example the Carolina heelsplitter and the affect on its environment, I haven’t seen anything that would lead me to conclude that has been addressed,” Corley said.
He believes when it comes to the discharge permit, that will concern the stormwater discharged by the mine, “something much more rigorous is needed.”