Community meeting: Locals call for Legacy Mining to stop exploratory drilling
By Samantha Jones
Concerned citizens packed the Carroll Electric Community Room on Friday, July 12, at a meeting addressing Legacy Mining Company's exploratory drilling in the Winona township near Keels Creek and the Kings River, but two chairs sat empty facing the crowd.
Chris Fischer presented the agenda and said those chairs were reserved for representatives from Legacy Mining Company and the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). He had spoken with ADEQ spokesman Jacob Harper, Fischer said, and expected ADEQ to have a representative at the meeting.
"Both parties have been well aware this meeting was being organized since our Quorum Court meeting," Fischer said. "I reached out to both parties, extensively to ADEQ, and as of two days ago, ADEQ notified me they would not be able to attend the meeting period."
ADEQ never promised to attend the meeting, Harper said.
"The reason for that is because Legacy Mining has not initiated any regulatory process with ADEQ at this time," Harper said. "ADEQ would have nothing to report or add to discussion at that point."
Legacy representative Scott Moore said it was difficult to get to the meeting on short notice.
"We were only given a five-day notice," Moore said. "Some of us are in Atlanta and some of us are in Missouri. Planning to attend something like that with a five-day notice –– it's tough."
What's happened so far
Fischer kicked off the meeting by introducing District 4 Justice of the Peace Marty Johnson, whose district includes Winona. Johnson thanked everyone for showing up and said no one wants a limestone quarry in their back yard.
"We're just going to have to stay after these guys, because they didn't even show up," Johnson said. "Y'all are on the right page. This is going to ruin a lot of things from wells to roads to everything in between. Stay after it."
Fischer said the community could be talking about two quarries spearheaded by Legacy: a permitted quarry on Elk Ranch and the exploratory work in the Winona township.
"Elk Ranch has five distinct permits to quarry that have been issued by ADEQ," Fischer said. "They have not moved forward with any activity I'm aware of. Winona Springs is a different story."
Fischer said Jerry Neill, who works with ADEQ's mining land division, called Legacy two weeks ago saying their public notice and notices of intent (NOIs) for the three quarries at the Winona Springs location were erroneous because the public notice was published before the NOI documents were filed. The public notice and NOI documents must be filed at the same time, Fischer said.
"The NOI documents were filed on a date some 10 days after the public notice," Fischer said. "ADEQ came to the conclusion Legacy would have to start that process over."
Fischer said he asked Neill to confirm that but received no response. Neill decline to comment on the issue, saying it would be best to speak with Harper. On Tuesday, Harper said ADEQ was notified of errors in the published public notice.
"Due to the errors in the public notice," Harper said, "Legacy Mining published a new public notice for a proposed quarry location in Carroll County."
Community complaints led to ADEQ telling Legacy to re-start the application process, Fischer said, but the exploratory work doesn't require a permit quite yet. Harper said that is true, saying the Arkansas Quarry Operation, Reclamation and Safe Closure Act does not provide any requirements for exploration.
Fischer said ADEQ water division inspector Skylar Schlick completed a site visit in May and determined the activity does not encompass an area larger than an acre. In a letter dated June 5, Schlick writes that sediment runoff was observed in an unnamed tributary of Keels Creek.
"This is a violation of the Arkansas Water and Air Pollution Act," Schlick writes.
As Legacy expands on the exploratory work, Fischer said, a permit will become necessary.
"They have to produce a document and send that to ADEQ, which is called notice of coverage that has to be posted on the website prior to the beginning of construction," Fischer said. "I'm not sure if that means construction of a quarry or construction of exploratory action."
Everyone who doesn't want the mining to continue, Fischer said, should take a look at the state laws defining how the permit process works.
"There are discrepancies in the way notices of intent are filed," Fischer said. "It's clear [Legacy] did not adhere to this act when they erroneously placed their public notice prior to the delivery of the documents intent to quarry."
The same is true for the work at Elk Ranch, Fischer said.
"It's clear those two things are to be filed and submitted through ADEQ simultaneously," Fischer said.
Moore confirmed Tuesday Legacy is continuing to do exploratory work near Winona Springs and said the work should be complete by the end of the month depending on the weather.
"We're just doing exploratory drilling trying to see what's under the ground," Moore said. "To do any type of work going forward, we'd have to have a permit."
So does Legacy plan to seek a permit?
"Possibly," Moore said.
Mining impacts everything around it, Fischer said, and a quarry would cause extensive degradation to the environment.
"Water quality is a huge concern … the loss of groundwater or springs for drinking and the loss of habitat," Fischer said.
Pat Costner called the Kings River "the rock star of water resources," saying the river is a big economic engine for the community. It is one of the few remaining free flowing rivers in the country, Costner said, and provides a home and resources to all kinds of wildlife.
"It's a beautiful place, so protecting its quality, especially from this quarry, will have a great benefit to our environment," Costner said.
The fundamental issue is water quality, she said. A limestone quarry would require deforestation, Costner said, which would negatively impact the ecosystem. She described these negative impacts, including sediment discharge, sedimentation in caves, water quality deterioration, water table lowering and spring desiccation.
"There's nothing that will destroy an ecosystem like a quarry," Costner said. "You cannot quarry stone without destroying the ecosystem of that area."
The relationship between environmental damage and quarrying has been well-documented for more than 50 years, Costner said. The only way to stop Legacy from creating more damage, she said, is if citizens stand against the exploratory work happening at Winona Springs.
"By standing up and speaking up, you can stop things," Costner said. "We've had that experience in the past. We know it can be done."
Jessie Green, executive director of White River Waterkeeper, said she started her organization to be sure the ecosystem is protected. She worked for ADEQ in the past, Green said, and saw how corporate interests prevented ADEQ from doing its job.
"One of the reasons I left there was related to corporate and special interests and the impact it has on our regulatory agencies being able to carry out their mission," Green said. "We need citizens to speak up and get engaged and hold their feet to the fire."
Fischer then opened the meeting for public comments, starting with landowners adjacent to the exploratory work. Tim Snell, who works with The Nature Conservancy, reminded everyone the 6,000-acre Kings River Preserve is owned by the Nature Conservancy. Snell said he was happy to see so many people gather to address the issue.
"The Nature Conservancy is a large neighbor to this property and also a neighbor to a lot of the folks in this room," Snell said.
The reason The Nature Conservancy purchased land in the area, Snell said, is because of a rare species in the water. The aquatic habitat is very good, Snell said, with 18 endemic species living in the water. Kings River is also important to local tourism, Snell said.
"It is a huge recreational engine, so there's a lot of recreational uses of the river," Snell said, "which is very compatible with a peaceful, wonderful valley and a wonderful river running through it."
Snell said he is a strong believer in private rights, but that doesn't apply to what's happening here.
"The line gets crossed when you damage your neighbors and damage the resources of the community," Snell said. "We don't feel like taking the top off a mountain and removing the gravel is a good idea."
The river is in good shape, Snell said, and he wants it to stay that way.
"It's very important to stay on this," Snell said. "This is not going to be a quick thing to ensure the quality of the water. It's going to be a somewhat long-term issue."
Jim Culpepper said he moved to Carroll County from Pine Bluff and dreamt of owning land on Rock House Road. Now he and his wife are building a house there, Culpepper said, and he's worried about the future.
"It should be ready in four months," Culpepper said, "and it's going to be a wonderful thing if we can keep this dream alive."
Chuck Braswell expressed frustration over Legacy and ADEQ failing to show up at the meeting.
"They both probably figure time is on their side on this, because we all tend to focus on the latest catastrophes," Braswell said. "As time goes by, people stop paying attention. I hope that doesn't happen here."
He continued, "It seems to me the very ears these discussions need to fall on don't give a damn about showing up. I didn't fully believe Legacy would show up, but I did think ADEQ would give a rip."
The exploratory work is still happening at Winona Springs, Braswell said, and he knows that for a fact.
"I live next door and those people have been out there every day doing what they do," Braswell said. "You can call it exploratory … but at this point in time, they haven't shown any sign of slowing down what they're doing."
The work should not be allowed to progress, Braswell said.
"If ADEQ does not care enough to even be here today to listen to the concerns of everybody that showed up," he said, "I would like to know who are their bosses and just how far up the chain do we have to go to become a big enough voice to where something gets done."
Mary Tait agreed, saying she was singing to the choir.
"I do not believe this area is appropriate for industry," Tait said. "We have homes, horse farms, vegetable gardens and agriculture there. We do not need earth-shattering, car-disturbing, gear-grinding industry."
To stop Legacy, Mike Shah said the community needs to put all its resources together. Shah said the effects on the river are obvious to those who are familiar with it.
"There's a lot more gravel in the river. There's a lot more sediment in the river," Shah said. "There's a lot more large trees in the river."
Bobby Wilson said he moved to Carroll County from Texas because of the nature in Northwest Arkansas.
"This is called the Natural State versus the potentially unnatural state," Wilson said.
Katy Turnbaugh said she bought her farm 14 years ago and has treated the environment with respect.
"I am a person who commutes quite a distance so I can live in this place and make enough money to lose money farming," Turnbaugh said. "I resent the hell out of someone trying to subvert my effort to lose money as I see fit."
What comes next?
If the situation doesn't change, Fischer said, Legacy will continue its exploratory activity and will submit an application to do work there eventually. Fischer suggested that the community consider petitioning ADEQ to revoke the Elk Ranch quarry permits.
"If the Winona Springs case is true, then the same case is true with the Elk Ranch quarry permits," Fischer said. "I think that might be contributing to ADEQ's reluctance to speak to me any further on this process."
The community could also request that Gov. Asa Hutchinson place a moratorium on quarry permits, Fischer said.
"That might be reasonable given the quarry permit process seems to be problematic," Fischer said. "While Legacy is busy out on Rock House Road, we don't know the extent of how that environment's being affected."
The most important thing, Costner said, is for the community to keep fighting.
"Your voice –– your voice is what is important here, and fortunately the work is not yet permitted," Costner said. "There is time to make a difference now, and it's easier to make a difference now than it is after it's permitted."