“Providing science-based environmental stewardship for the health, safety and prosperity of ALL North Carolinians.” – North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ)– Mission Statement
stewardship (stoo-erd-ship): 2. the responsible overseeing and protection of something considered worth caring for or preserving – Dictionary.com
For a regulatory body guided by such lofty ideals, it would seem a foregone conclusion that public land immediately adjacent to a state park would not be suitable for a rock quarry. Certainly not if said park happened to be the most visited in the entire North Carolina State Park system, with nearly two million annual visitors. Certainly, given all the measurable deleterious environmental and public health impacts wrought by such a quarry, and the swiftly dwindling public green spaces available to Triangle residents, such a quarry would be rightly seen as a nuisance at best, and at worst, potentially ruinous to the state park system’s crown jewel. Surely, given that the quarry would compromise the health, safety, and prosperity of North Carolinians, such a circumspect regulatory body would summarily dismiss the mining permit in question.
Well, it’s complicated.
How we got here
The Odd Fellows tract as it is known, is a 105-acre parcel of land immediately adjacent to William B. Umstead State Park, along Reedy Creek trail. The parcel is bordered roughly by Umstead Park to the north, I-40 to the south, Lake Crabtree County Park to the west, and the current Wake Stone Corporation quarry to the east. This tract of public land was deeded to four local governments – Wake County, Durham County, the City of Raleigh and the City of Durham, in a July, 1976 transfer from the Sir Raleigh Lodge 411 of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows to those governmental entities.
RDU Airport Authority (RDUAA) manages this land on behalf of the owning municipalities under legislation passed by the North Carolina General Assembly following that 1976 sale. NC General Statute 63.56(f), states:
“no real property and no airport, other air navigation facility, or air protection privilege, owned jointly, shall be disposed of by the board (i.e. RDUAA), by sale, or otherwise, except by authority of the appointed governing bodies, but the board may lease space, area or improvements and grant concessions on airports for aeronautical purposes or purposes incidental thereto.”
This 105 acre parcel of land has been the focus of a years-long struggle between a private corporation bent on expanding operations and private citizens organizing to save not just the 105 acres, but the sanctity of Umstead State Park, and the rights of impacted landowners. This struggle unfolds in fits and starts while the governing bodies that own this public land sit strangely quiet.
In 1980, Wake Stone Corporation initially submitted an application for a mining permit for a tract just east of Odd Fellows, where their current mine is now in operation. That original permit was initially denied by the NCDEQ, which cited the “combined effects of noise, sedimentation, dust, traffic and blasting vibration associated with the proposed quarry and the impacts upon William B. Umstead State Park.”
What followed was an appeal by Wake Stone and a series of reviews by various state agencies, including NCDEQ and North Carolina State Parks. Ultimately, the mining permit was approved in 1981 with a few caveats, including a substantial buffer between the quarry pit and Umstead, a donation to the State Park system, and a clause in the permit which would effectively sunset mining operations within 50 years, or ten years after active mining ceases, whichever of those comes sooner.
The “sooner” verbiage in that 50 Year Sunset Clause would effectively halt operations by Wake Stone in 2031 at the latest, at which time the land would be turned over to the State of North Carolina.
Over the next 37 years, Wake Stone filed numerous renewals for this mining permit with no alteration to the 50 Year Sunset Clause. However, in March 2018, Wake Stone filed a mining permit modification, which substituted the “sooner” language with “later”, effectively negating the 50 Year Sunset Clause, and enabling mining and possibly even expansion into perpetuity. This modification was completed by NCDEQ staff under the supervision of an Interim DEQ Director, William “Toby” Vinson without the requisite Permit Modification Application or fees. Neither North Carolina State Parks, nor affected landowners and businesses were consulted about the change.
Subsequently, RDUAA entered into a mineral lease with Wake Stone Corporation on Friday, March 1, 2019 with 48 hours of public notice. The “lease” would allow Wake Stone to create a new rock quarry pit within the 105-acre publicly owned Odd Fellows tract. This lease was completed without the consultation or approval of the owning municipalities, and with little to no window for public comment.
Make no mistake, this agreement is not a lease in any realistic sense of the word. Imagine leasing a car, and returning it to the dealer at the end of the lease period with the wheels, seats, engine and dashboard removed. Moreover, imagine the dealer agreeing to the removal of those items at the outset of the lease. It is unimaginable because that is not how leases work. Such is the jaded and farcical nature of RDUAA’s agreement with Wake Stone.
The Public Responds
Following the RDUAA/Wake Stone lease, the Umstead Coalition and Triangle Off-Road Cyclists, as well as adjacent landowners Randy and Tamara Dunn and Wake County resident Bill Doucette filed a lawsuit against the RDUAA and Wake Stone Corporation with the following requests:
- Municipalities must provide approval for disposal of their mineral rights – this approval has not been obtained.
- The RDUAA has exceeded their authority granted by the State Legislature.
- The signed lease of March 1, 2019 is not valid, and therefore should be nullified until the governing bodies approve the sale of their mineral rights.
Meanwhile, The Conservation Fund, a non-profit environmental preservation group based in Arlington, VA, offered $6.46 million to purchase the Odd Fellows tract and donate the land to William B. Umstead State Park. RDUAA declined this offer, citing the wildly optimistic potential for $24 million in revenue from the Wake Stone lease over two decades. However, that amount is not stipulated in the lease. Wake Stone only guarantees $8.5 million in back-loaded payments, and the present value of the lease is $4.6 million.
What could explain RDUAA’s decision to 1) enter into an unlawful lease – and 2) decline a $6.46 million lump sum sale in lieu of a lease valued at $4.6 million to be paid in installments over 20 years? Can you say good ole boy politics?
John Bratton, the founder of Wake Stone Corporation, as well as his sons, John, Jr (Vice Chairman of the Board of Wake Stone), Theodore Bratton (CEO) and Samuel Bratton (President), have made tens of thousands of dollars in political donations to various campaigns, both Democratic and Republican over the decades. It would appear those donations have purchased the silence of the owning municipalities, run by politicians who have been the beneficiaries of Bratton largesse over the years. The Brattons are now calling in those favors in an effort to expand their quarry operations onto public land.
Where we are, and next steps
In April 2020, Wake Stone Corporation filed a mining permit application for the Odd Fellows tract. A public hearing was held by the NCDEQ on Tuesday, June 23, 2020, which included over 570 virtual attendees and 78 speakers over the course of several hours, all of whom used their allotted two minutes to speak out against the expanded quarry, with the lone exception of Wake Stone’s Samuel Bratton. The attendance was so great that the hearing was adjourned after 10pm and an overflow hearing was scheduled for July 7, 2020.
From the standpoint of environmental impact and quality of life for Triangle area residents, the idea of a quarry expansion onto the Odd Fellows tract should be a non-starter.
Wake Stone seeks to cart away 105 acres of forested habitat, topsoil and stone at a rate of up to 500 truckloads per day in an area immediately adjacent to William B. Umstead State Park. Visitors to the park would not only be subjected to the nerve-jangling cacophony of 500 dump trucks rolling daily along Old Reedy Creek Road, but to airborne particulate matter, including silicate, which, when inhaled can lead to silicosis – a permanent scarring of the lungs. There is no Federal regulation limiting non-workplace exposure to silica. Mine workers would be equipped with PPE. Runners, mountain bikers and other unwitting park users? They would be on their own and highly vulnerable.
There is also the peril of fly rock, which are rock fragments from blasting which fly beyond the blast site, potentially causing injury and property damage. With virtually no buffer zone between the proposed quarry expansion and Umstead State Park, this would present a potentially lethal peril. Seismic damage from blasts can and do cause damage to nearby homes as well. There is a reason for land use restrictions and zoning, which typically prevent incompatible commercial and industrial operations like mining from locating next to state parks.
And then there is the long-term impact of an expanded quarry. Wake Stone has attempted to paint a rosy picture of a public lake which would be left in the aftermath of mining operations decades from now. In reality, the Odd Fellows tract – currently forested habitat supporting a thriving ecosystem – would be a 400-foot hole in the ground. The pit would not flush itself naturally as would a normal body of water, which would result in a fetid pool of runoff water, stagnant and inaccessible to the public due to the vertical nature of the rock face. No beach, no public use, just a nuisance and a liability which would need to be permanently cordoned off and monitored at great expense to the owning municipalities long after the rapacious Brattons have made off with their millions from the destruction of publicly owned land.
The NCDEQ has an opportunity to stop this environmental and ethical catastrophe in the making. The history of Odd Fellows is being recorded day by day, and the legacies of the NCDEQ board will be inextricably tied to that history. Will those legacies speak to the principled preservation of public land and upholding the lofty ideals of their mission statement? Or will they speak to feckless catering to moneyed interests and a 400-foot hole in the ground?
For additional reading and viewing:
- https://umsteadcoalition.org/StopRDUQuarry – The Umstead Coalition – Stop RDU Quarry
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gxguDyQOGY – 400 Feet Down – Misguided Authority and the Fight to #stoprduquarry
Attend the July 7, 2020 public hearing! https://deq.nc.gov/news/press-releases/2020/06/24/wake-stone-public-hearing-continuation