NEW HANOVER — Two years after filing an objection to the issuing of a mining permit to Gibraltar Rock by the state, the township and an opposition group have won a victory.
In an 82-page decision, the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board ruled that the state Department of Environmental Protection failed to properly consider how a hazardous clean-up adjacent to the quarry site would be affected by the start of quarry operations.
And because there is no current schedule for the cleanup of the former Good's Oil hazardous site off Route 663, the hearing board decision means "the permits are rescinded rather than remanded."
Friday's decision comes in the wake of a five-day proceeding conducted last fall before the state board staffed by five administrative law judges who oversee disputes with the DEP.
The decision can be appealed to Commonwealth Court, a process that Stephen Harris, the attorney for Gibraltar Rock, previously estimated would take 12 to 18 months.
Reached Monday, Harris said he had not yet consulted with his client, and declined to comment.
The appeal of DEP's issuance of the mining permit being was filed by the township in July of 2018 and joined by the citizens' group fighting the quarry — Paradise Watchdogs/Ban the Quarry.
In a press release issued Monday, Chris Mullaney, the attorney for the citizens' group, wrote: "the board was very critical of the experts for Gibraltar Rock while finding the township’s experts to be highly credible."
"The board was also very critical of the analysis and actions taken by the DEP as well as their lack of coordination between the Pottsville Mining Office, which oversees the mining permits and the Southeast Regional DEP office, which oversees the (pollution site) under the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act," Mullaney wrote.
"We are also pleased that the EHB is in total agreement with our desire to have" the contaminated site "completely remediated before allowing any activity that would further distribute the over 30 chemicals to neighboring wells, creeks and unnamed tributaries," said Celeste Bish, president of Paradise Watchdogs/Ban the Quarry.
"By issuing a permit renewal to Gibraltar Rock, the DEP was allowing an experiment with unknown consequences to the citizens, and with no understanding of the risks involved or how the risks would be managed. We agree with the EHB that this is not consistent with proper and thoughtful environmental regulation," said Bish.
"The purpose of the DEP is not just to issue permits to industry — they are responsible to protect and preserve air, water, land, and public health by enforcing the environmental laws," she said. "It is evident that they have failed in New Hanover Township."
"I am very pleased with the court's decision. Credit for this grass-roots win goes to the members of Ban the Quarry and Celeste Bish for the hundreds of hours they devoted to this effort over the past 20 years," said John Auman, who lives across the street from the quarry and thus had legal standing to challenge the issuing of the mining permits.
"It is a great victory for the citizens of New Hanover Township," he said.
This latest legal battle is another in a long string of them dating all the way back to 2001 when the quarry was first proposed.
The DEP first issued the quarry a non-coal mining permit in 2005. It was renewed in 2015 and is for the original quarry proposal, located on land south of Hoffmansville Road, north of Route 73 and west of Church Road, known as GR-1 and the additional property included in its first proposed expansion, known as GR-2.
The combined site south of Hoffmansville Road is a proposed 241-acre rock quarry and crushing operation on 302 acres of land.
Subsequently, Gibraltar purchased property and filed plans for an expansion on 82 acres on the north side of Hoffmansville Road, also bounded by Church Road to the east and Coleflesh Road to the north. That 82 acres now includes a fourth expansion on 18 adjacent acres, known as GR-4. The 18 acres are adjacent to the pollution site that has become the center of many of the township’s legal objections.
Gibraltar’s plans call for rock mined from GR-3 and GR-4 to be carried beneath Hoffmansville Road on a conveyer belt for crushing and processing on the GR-1 site.
Much of the township's argument opposing the permit revolves around the underground chemical pollution discovered in 2011 at a nearby property off Route 663, formerly Good’s Oil. That contamination ultimately spread through groundwater and required a $2 million expansion of the public water system for those whose wells were contaminated.
The state determined in 2013 that the property, now known as the Hoff VC site, is the source of volatile organic compound chemical contamination of a number of residential wells. The DEP says pollution likely came from an underground pit from which 8,000 gallons of chemicals was extracted and burned in 2016 as part of an initial clean-up there although there may be other sources as well.
Several of the contaminants from that site were found in an observation well just 200 feet from the quarry pit that is subject to the permit, the township wrote in its appeal.
The township worries that the quarry operation, which will require pumping several thousand gallons of groundwater that will seep into quarry pits each day, into a holding basin and then into an unnamed tributary of Swamp Creek, will draw the groundwater contamination out into the open.
In the meantime, the quarry application has also been winding its way through a lengthy zoning process.
In September 2017, after 20 hearings that stretched back to April of 2015, the New Hanover Township Zoning Hearing Board unanimously approved the variances needed for the expansion of the quarry but attached 15 conditions that must be met.
Two weeks later, the board of supervisors voted unanimously to appeal the zoning approval, a legal fight now being fought on an entirely different front.