B&L2020: Quarry opponents vow to continue fight for relevance

State Rep. Cal Forrest and state Sen. Katrina Shealy quickly search for answers online during the latest Ridge Protection Coalition public meeting, which included conversation about the Vulcan Material quarry and other topics of interest. (Staff photo by Tony Baughman)

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When Vulcan Materials Company announced six years ago its plans to develop a new granite quarry just outside Batesburg-Leesville, a vocal and tenacious band of protestors raised their voices.

The Ridge Protection Coalition (RPC) had found its mission.

Later this month on Wednesday, Oct. 16, Vulcan Materials is throwing an Open House party to celebrate the grand opening of its 500-plus-acre quarry operation. The company promises tours of the facility, free food, even a chance for an up-close look at the big machines that bust huge stones into tiny pebbles.

The battle to block the quarry is lost, but still the Ridge Protection Coalition continues its fight for relevance. Even as Vulcan fires up its mining enterprise and invites the community to celebrate with them, the RPC is trying to break new ground.

“This group intends to stay together,” said Nelda Rikard, the current RPC president. “It’s a very dedicated group of people. We want to get into the historical issues of our area, preservation of cemeteries or anything that we can do to help.”

The conversation continues

Last week, on a warm Wednesday night, about a dozen members of the RPC threw open the doors of the First Baptist Church of Leesville activities center and invited in the community for a public forum. State Rep. Cal Forrest, state Sens. Katrina Shealy and Shane Massey, Lexington County Councilman Larry Brigham and Batesburg-Leesville Mayor Lancer Shull sat at the front of the room and fielded questions for more than two hours.

Sarah Main, executive director of the Lexington County Community Mental Health Center, also had a seat at the table but was called upon very rarely to speak. The defeated fight against the quarry still drove the night’s conversation.

“We just wanted to be able to talk with our legislators about pending legislation, what’s coming up,” Mrs. Rikard said. “We just wanted to get some issues out in the open and just sit down and talk with them.”

Over the past few years, as they spoke out vehemently against the quarry, Coalition members met individually with members of the legislative delegation. Last week’s meeting was the first gathering hosted by the RPC that brought all the lawmakers under one roof at the same time.

“They have been to some of our Coalition meetings and sat down and talked with us several years ago when all the issues were going on with the quarry,” Mrs. Rikard said. “We have had a lot of these concerns for several years, and they have been kind enough to work with us. But their hands are tied in a lot of ways.”

Even as the quarry has come online and begun its work, Sen. Massey believes the RPC remains a relevant voice in any dialogue about the region’s future.

“Eve n though the quarry is here, those people are the folks who live closest by,” the state senator from Edgefield said. “So, they have an interest and a voice in making sure that the quarry complies with all the laws and regulations and agreements that are out there. Beyond that, this group has done a very good job of organizing, staying involved and talking with elected leaders about issues that concern them — the quarry being primary, but there are other issues that they’ve brought to our attention as well.”

Still, even with the group’s high-profile role in the quarry saga, the attendees sitting in the audience at last week’s gathering only slightly outnumbered the elected officials there. When the forum concluded a little after 9 o’clock on a night traditionally reserved for church gatherings, a few remaining RPC members milled around the fellowship hall, wondering what else they might have done to boost attendance.

Even in that postmortem, talk of the quarry rolled off their lips.

Rejecting the ‘anti-business’ label

The group remains openly and vocally critical of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), which oversees permits for mining operations in the state. RPC members feel the state agency hasn’t done enough to hold Vulcan Materials accountable as the company surged ahead with its construction plans.

“DHEC has their regulations to go by, but we just felt that DHEC needs to be more proactive – instead of waiting until something does happen,” Mrs. Rikard said. “That’s my fear that something will happen with the quarry.”

Easily the first 30 minutes of last week’s forum centered on DHEC’s perceived inadequacies in the eyes of RPC members. The refrain was familiar to the legislators and others drawn into the quarry fight.

“One of my main concerns is the dust issue, since I am able to see it,” said Mrs. Rikard, who lives close enough to view the mining operations from her property and described plumes of granite dust raking across U.S. 1 from the quarry site. “There is nothing to block the dust from coming my way – and the noise. There’s nothing to help block the noise.”

With the Vulcan quarry now in operation, the RPC fully intends to involve itself in other community concerns. They also reject any notion that they are fundamentally against economic development in the Batesburg-Leesville area.

“We are not anti-business. I know that it’s a necessary evil,” Mrs. Rikard said. “I know we have to have roads, and you have to have the concrete. Just maybe the way it was handled – I know there has to be secrecy done in business deals, but by the time we started finding out about the quarry, it was basically too late. But we wanted to try to make the best of it and try to protect what we were concerned about.”

Even Sen. Massey holds that any attempt to characterize the ongoing work of the RPC as “anti-business” would be both inaccurate and unfair.

“The only way you can view them this way is if you’re just trying to discredit them,” Sen. Massey said. “This is a group of people who have lived in this area for years, if not generations. These are native Lexington County people. They are not anti-business. They just want to make sure that their water supply and the homes that they’re invested in their whole lives aren’t going to be in danger.”

Just down the road from the Vulcan quarry, two new industries have already committed to construct in the slow-growing Batesburg-Leesville Industrial Park. One is a machine shop, and the other is an asphalt company that likely will source some of its materials from the nearby Vulcan quarry.

“What we have heard about the asphalt plant, hopefully they’re going to keep it clean and no problems with it,” Mrs. Rikard said. “And I understand that there are some other businesses looking there that we’ve been told that we would probably like. So, we’re looking on the positive side.”

Should any new potential industries that might be eyeing a spot in the industrial park be concerned about new protests arising from the dust of the quarry fight?

“That depends on the type of business,” Mrs. Rikard said. “We’re not anti-business, but I wouldn’t want something that would be really bad for our community.”

For now, the Ridge Protection Coalition is keeping the conversation going on several fronts. The talk at last week’s forum eventually turned to the need for improved rural broadband internet service, the high cost of building new schools, even to the displacement of native deer populations by the Batesburg-Leesville Walmart.

The long fight to block the Vulcan Materials quarry might be dead, but the force that drove the opposition in Batesburg-Leesville is still very much alive and well. What lies ahead for the RPC in 2020 and beyond, only time will tell.

Story by Tony Baughman / Posted October 3, 2019