Community opposition to Arundel Sand & Gravel Co.'s plan to expand the operations of its rock quarry near Havre de Grace is growing as the company seeks zoning approval from the county.
Harford County's zoning hearing examiner held a public hearing on the company's request for a special exception of its zoning permit last week. Six more hearings are scheduled before the end of next month.
"The activity is picking up and the opposition seems to be growing," said Valerie H. Twanmoh, a Bel Air lawyer who serves as the people's counsel.
She and others familiar with Arundel's plan and the concerns of residents living near the 670-acre quarry off Interstate 95 and next to the Susquehanna River say the current round of hearings could run into April.
Arundel is seeking approval to move two large piles of overburden - material left over from quarrying - from one part of its property and combine them into one mound at another part of the property.
The move would allow the company to mine rock beneath where the two piles now stand. Rock mined from the quarry is used for roads and driveways throughout the East Coast.
Residents of surrounding communities, including Susquehanna River Hills and Meadowvale, argue that moving the overburden represents a potential health threat, creates an eyesore and reduces the value of their homes.
They say noise will increase as bulldozers and trucks combine the piles - an operation that could take up to 15 years.
Residents also complain that dynamite blasting will move closer to their homes.
The manager of the county's only 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week radio station has complained that the new mound of dirt will interrupt the station's radio signal, disrupting service to a sizable part of the county and to Cecil County.
At least three bills dealing with the quarry are to be introduced in this session of the General Assembly.
Arundel, which has been operating the quarry since 1945, disagrees with many of the complaints. "There is a lot of misinformation out there," said company spokeswoman Kelly Henry.
She said that the company held an "information session" with the public in September to address residents' concerns and that another is being considered this spring, after the zoning examiner's hearings.
"Arundel is committed to working with our neighbors to address their concerns," Danny Williard, the company's president, told residents attending the community meeting in September.
Henry said the company has established a toll-free phone number where residents can call the company and have their questions answered. The number is 800-598-9724.
It's not certain when people living near the quarry will have an opportunity to talk to the zoning examiner. Twanmoh said it might not happen until March.
She said "hundreds of people are ready to voice their opposition," but testimony would likely be limited to eliminate duplication.
"This is a very important case," she said. "We have a situation where a very, very large mining operation is situated at the gateway to Havre de Grace and adjacent to residential communities.
"First of all there is going to be significant noise" involved in the building of a pile of overburden about a half-mile long, an eighth of a mile wide and 150 feet high.
"But a greater concern," said Twanmoh, "is the dust it will create. It contains crystalline silica and it can damage the lining of the lungs."
Bob Carson, an attorney living in Susquehanna River Hills, said the dust from crushing rocks could cause problems similar to those caused by asbestos. "It can cause silicosis, and this can cause death. That's why we are so concerned about the children at Meadowvale Elementary School, which is just a few hundred yards away," he said.
To address the health concern, Henry said the company hired a consultant to monitor air quality at the quarry.
The company said that two years of air samples taken from four separate locations, including the nearby elementary school, was enough to convince the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Harford County Health Department that there was no evidence of any airborne health threat from the quarry.
Carson, who is representing the Susquehanna River Hills community association, said he has "not met a single person in favor of this expansion. Everyone is opposed to it. This is being done solely by Florida Rock so it can make more money."
(Florida Rock Industries Inc., based in Jacksonville, Fla., acquired Arundel in 1988 for $88 million.)
"We will have 15 years of noise, dust irritation and an ugly hill to look at," Carson said. "Good neighbors don't do that to their neighbors."
"Another concern is the blasting," said Carson. "They will be blasting much closer to our homes. At the present time when a blast goes off, we can feel the house shake. It will get worse."
Bob Bloom, general manager of radio station WXCY-FM in Havre de Grace, said the proposed mound of overburden would block the station's signal to homes in Bel Air, Joppa and other communities in Harford County, as well as Cecil County.
"In an emergency, a hurricane warning or some other disaster, this could affect our ability to alert people," he said.
Bloom said that in the past when he complained about the overburden pile getting too high and interrupting the station's signal, "they [Arundel] would use a bulldozer to chop off the top of the hill."
A hiking trail operated by Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway Inc. would go around the mountain of dirt, said Mary Ann Lasanti, executive director of the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway.
She said Arundel wants to move the trail that runs from above the Conowingo Dam to Havre de Grace farther from the river and closer to homes and the Meadowvale Elementary School.
She said this doesn't satisfy the heritage group, and it is working on a compromise plan.
Judy Blomquist is concerned about the value of her home in Susquehanna River Hills and those of her neighbors. She fears that the expansion will hurt real estate prices.
"There could come a time, not likely in my lifetime," she said, that Arundel could take advantage of the declining home values and purchase the properties it needs to continue expansion.
"We are not on a campaign to close down the quarry," Blomquist said. "Let it live, but within reasonable limits."
The Maryland Department of the Environment has approved Arundel's permit to move the overburden, but it is dependent upon the company obtaining zoning approval from the county.
Under terms of legislation being introduced by Del. Barry Glassman, chairman of the Harford County legislative delegation, the state would not be able to give its final approval to such permits until they are approved by the county.
He said another bill would give citizens the right to appeal permit decisions by the Maryland Department of the Environment to an administrative officer within the state agency.
Glassman said a third bill, stemming from the situation between Arundel and the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway, would require companies to "check off" with local area heritage organizations before proceeding with a project.