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Mining company digs Chatham rock; citizens protest

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In the hills of western Chatham County about four miles south of Siler City, just off a two-lane road, sits a small shelter built over not one but a pair of natural springs. The water in each spring has a completely different mineral make-up. One is called "Health," with waters high in sulfur; the other is "Beauty," flowing with sweet waters rich in calcium and magnesium. Together, these springs brought an international reputation to the community of Mt. Vernon Springs in the 19th century, making the village a health spa in an era when contact with healing waters was a mainstream medical treatment.

Medicine isn't what it used to be, and neither is Mt. Vernon Springs. The area is now largely agricultural and populated with elderly and low-income residents. Locals still visit the springs, which are on private property but open to the public, and many in the community draw their water supply here. How long things will stay that way, no one knows, because the springs are under assault.

ISP Minerals, a conglomerate based in Hagerstown, Md., has identified a 1,000-acre tract across the road as a source of rock for roofing shingles. That land is within Siler City's extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ, which means the town has planning authority over the land even though ETJ residents can't vote for the town's governing board.

In May, that board unanimously approved ISP's request to rezone the property to allow mining, over the protests of many residents. ISP would be a "good corporate citizen," the city fathers promised. State and federal regulators would ensure no harm befalls the community, they insisted.

The town did not ask ISP to perform any assessment of the quarry's impact on the springs or area aquifers, the nearby Rocky River and its tributaries, area farms including Horizon Cellars Winery or the air quality in Mt. Vernon Springs. Never mind that many details in the application were lacking, like an air-quality monitoring plan that couldn't be made public because the company claims it contains trade secrets; or just plain wrong, like the reclamation plan that calls for planting a tree that doesn't exist, Virginia white pine; or the fact that ISP has only acquired other companies' mines before and never opened one itself. Citizens say that's a foolish gamble, and they packed a July 25 public hearing held by N.C. Department of the Environment and Natural Resources at the county courthouse to explain why.

Twenty-seven speakers testified about their concerns over the proposed quarry, detailing a long list of risks and unanswered questions relating to the mine's impacts on the community.

Four people spoke in favor of ISP and on behalf of old-line economic interests in Siler City, which has been hit hard by the overseas migration of textile and furniture-making jobs. Don Tarkington, who served on the town's planning board during the review of ISP's rezoning request, said that the town "desperately" needed the 125-plus jobs the quarry will bring.

"We have to take what comes to us," Tarkington said. Jody Minor of the Chatham County United Chamber of Commerce called claims of health and environmental dangers from the mine "embellished panic."

For Siler City businessmen, welcoming an extraction industry is apparently easier than reimagining the town's future in a 21st-century economy.

As Mt. Vernon Springs native and health services chief at Moses Cone Health System Dr. Mary John Baxley testified, Chatham's "good, honest, hard-working people deserve better."

So do Health and Beauty.

Bynum resident Roland McReynolds requested the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources hold a public hearing on the mining proposal. He is a member of the board of Chatham Citizens for Effective Communities and a former member of the Chatham Coalition steering committee.

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