WESTERLY — The state Department of Environmental Management has cited Copar Quarries for allowing dust to blow off of its quarry site, according to an email from one of Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s staff members.
The email, from Ryan Crowley, constituent liaison in the governor’s Constituent Services office, said that the DEM had issued the notice of violation to the company and imposed an unspecified penalty on Aug. 21. Crowley said the department was trying to serve the notice as of Tuesday. The violation follows DEM documentation of a dust violation on May 7, Crowley said, and the issuance of an “informal written notice” on May 24. According to Crowley’s email, which was sent to Westerly resident Charles Marsh, Copar did not respond to the May 24 notice.
Jeffrey Gladstone, Copar’s lawyer, said Wednesday that he was not aware of the company being cited last week and said the company has never failed to respond to DEM. “We have complied with everything they have asked, answered every question, and worked with them,” Gladstone said.
The DEM allegations are “certainly consistent with what my clients have said and complained of and documented in court, and it’s a violation of applicable law,” said Michael Lynch, a lawyer who represents three couples who are suing Copar, its landlord, Westerly Granite Co., and the town.
Crowley wrote to Marsh after Marsh sent an email to the governor complaining of a “serious health threat” caused by dust emanating from the quarry in Bradford. Marsh claims that the dust contains large amounts of crystalline silica. In June, during a visit to Westerly for the Misquamicut Business Association’s annual breakfast meeting, Chafee said he was not familiar with Copar but said he would look into the company after learning that it was the target of numerous complaints from neighboring residents. The neighbors say the dust coats their property and puts their health at risk.
Gladstone said silica is a naturally occurring substance found in many places where granite is found. The volume of silica present in the granite at the Copar site is extremely low, he said.
“We are talking about such a small amount as to be virtually non-detectable. To say that this could be a potential carcinogen or any reason for alarm, it’s just not even in that realm,” Gladstone said.
Copar is also facing the possibility of a new notice of violation being issued by the town. Interim Town Manager Michelle Buck confirmed Wednesday that she had asked Zoning Officer Jason Parker, Building Official David Murphy and Town Engineer Paul LeBlanc to investigate complaints that Copar was working outside of a 700-foot by 1,000-foot space that it is allowed to work in under its current zoning permit.
Buck said that Parker, Murphy and LeBlanc met with the town’s lawyers on Aug. 22 after visiting the Copar site, and that surveys are being conducted to determine whether the company was working outside of the permitted area on land that is zoned for residential use. If the company is found to be working outside of the permitted area, the town will issue a new notice of violation, Buck said.
Copar is already faced with two other sets of cease and desist orders and notices of violation issued by former Zoning Officer Elizabeth Burdick. She alleged in August 2012 that Copar was working outside of the permitted work area and that the company had willfully violated zoning regulations by failing to properly water stone piles and by creating excessive noise. A separate set of cease and desist orders issued by Robert Craven, who was later appointed to serve as special zoning officer in the case, revoked Copar’s zoning permit and claimed that the permit was based on maps that did not properly depict the property and its surroundings.
Copar has appealed the orders issued by both Burdick and Craven. The town’s Zoning Board of Review is expected to resume a hearing on the appeal of Burdick’s orders on Sept 4. The board has said it would not start a hearing on the appeal of Craven’s orders until it completes the hearing on Burdick’s orders.
Karina Holyoak Wood, director of public policy for the Rhode Island branch of the American Lung Association, recently wrote to the Town Council and zoning board, outlining the potential threats to lung health from quarry dust. During an interview Wednesday, Wood confirmed that her letter was intended to inform of the general dangers of quarry dust but was not based on specific knowledge of Copar aside from information she received about the company from neighbors.
Quarry dust and other fine particulate matter, Wood said, can put children, teenagers, the elderly and others at greater risk for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Exposure to the dust also increases the risk of developing silicosis, lung cancer, and kidney disease, she said.
Wood recommended exposure tests to determine the volume of particulate matter in the air near the quarry. “It’s concerning to us that neighbors have said they can see clouds of dust coming from the quarry,” Wood said.
The finest particulate matter, which is not visible to the naked eye, can be more dangerous than the type that can be seen, Wood said, because it settles deeper into the lungs and can enter the bloodstream.
The Lung Association, having been notified of potential problems, will monitor the quarry, Wood said.
Town Council President Diana Serra said the town is moving forward with plans to test the air in the neighborhood adjacent to the Church Street quarry.
Tests will also be conducted at the Bradford School, she said. Serra said no additional mediation sessions between the town’s lawyers and lawyers for Copar and Westerly Granite Co. will be scheduled until after the town completes the air quality tests and receives results.
“That will determine whether we continue mediation or we might go in a different direction,” Serra said.
Gladstone said Copar is committed to being a good neighbor and has invited the Town Council to inspect its operations.
“Part of the problem is that these allegations are not based on science, they are based on hyperbole, and while we remain sensitive to our neighbors and have taken more steps to be a good neighbor than any other quarry in Westerly, these things take on a life of their own. We are doing everything we possibly can to comply with state and federal regulations,” Gladstone said.
“The only way to resolve these problems is if the other side actually wants to resolve them and wants to be reasonable,” he said.