ROCKIN’ THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Embattled quarry opens with party for ‘neighbors’

The heavy equipment is rolling, operating, and crushing granite rock into pebbles at the new Vulcan Materials Company quarry. (Staff photos by Tony Baughman)

A failed grass-roots effort to block construction of a new granite-mining operation near Batesburg-Leesville used a familiar bright-red traffic symbol for its “Stop The Quarry” battle cry.

Last week, with the tussle against local resistance effectively won, Vulcan Materials Company rolled out a little red of its own – the proverbial red carpet – for an Open House and Grand Opening at its newly-operational Lexington County quarry.

The lavish tent party was staged in the center of Vulcan’s 553-acre mining operation, a folksy affair designed to win over hearts and minds toward the company’s new digs here.

“We want to be a good neighbor, and we want to show our neighbors what we’re all about,” said Rodney Hobbs, Area Operations Manager for Vulcan Materials. “We’re proud of this facility. It’s going to help build this community, and we want to show it off.”

Vulcan’s well-orchestrated hospitality included a barbecue buffet lunch catered by Hudson’s Smokehouse of Lexington, photo opportunities next to big-wheeled, life-size Tonka-esque heavy equipment, and a bus tour down into the pit where crews have begun excavating granite boulders weighing thousands of pounds that soon will be crushed into mere pebbles. There were even yellow and pink plastic hardhats for the kids (donned by a few playful adults).

“We want to give people the opportunity to judge us and see for themselves how we do things,” said Scott Burnham, spokesperson for Vulcan Materials, whose job it was to carefully dispense the company’s unfailingly positive messaging to the folks attending the Open House. “We talk about doing things the right way. All of our people live by that day in and day out, and we’re confident that in the long term, if there are any differences, we’ll work those all out, and people will truly find us to be a good neighbor.”

‘A permanent fixture in the community’

Among those who came to the tent party to see the quarry operation for themselves was Batesburg-Leesville Town Councilman Charles Simpkins. Both he and Town Manager Ted Luckadoo milled around the makeshift expo, shaking hands and joining the quarry conversation.

One of the conveyors at the Vulcan Materials quarry dumps crushed rock into a pile, soon to be distributed to customers.

“They are going to be a permanent fixture in this community, so it would be wise for us to have some knowledge of how they operate and what to expect in the future,” said Councilman Simpkins, who acknowledged that “there are a lot of people still very concerned about the environment, people who own wells in the area, and I think justifiably so. They should be concerned because they don’t know exactly how it’s going to affect them in the future – and that’s a long time.”

Plant officials expect Vulcan Materials to blast and dig granite from this new quarry for at least 75 years. The first official load of crushed rock rolled out of the mine on the Monday prior to the open house.

“These are our neighbors,” Councilman Simpkins said of the folks who live on the unincorporated open land and family farms surrounding the quarry, many of whom have been vocal in their opposition to the mine. “Eventually, Town is going to be out this far. So we want to be aware of what to expect. So far, I’ve just seen positive things – especially from the people I’ve talked with from Vulcan about what they plan to do in the community and what they plan to bring to the table.”

The $19-million mine project is first greenfield operation for which Vulcan Materials Company has sought regulatory approval in South Caroina since 1986, “so there’s a certain amount of celebration for our employees,” said Jimmy Fleming, Vice President for Permitting and External Relations for Vulcan. “Talking about it is one thing. Actually seeing it is another. We do tours at most of our facilities all over the country, and we do that so that we can show people instead of trying to tell them what we’re doing.”

Officially, a Vulcan-crafted white-paper on the quarry’s grand opening states that “Vulcan took steps to enlarge buffer areas, route traffic away from local roadways, and implemented additional features that go above and beyond protecting nearby property and the environment.” The company proudly touts that the actual mining operations will be limited to 131 of the site’s sprawling 553 acres, which means that 76.4 percent of the property inside the quarry’s high chain-linked fence (topped with barbed wire) will not be disturbed.

“Fear of the unknown is something we want to alleviate. We’re very safe in what we do and how we operate. We take care of the environment, our employees and our structures here internally,” Mr. Fleming said. “We’re going to be part of this community for a long, long time.”

Mixed emotions, divided opinions

Not everyone who attended the Open House was convinced by Alabama-based Vulcan’s show of old-fashioned Southern hospitality.

“This is a terrible thing,” said an elderly attendee who declined to be identified as she looked out the bus window at the pit, where crags of raw granite – exposed by highly-trained blasting crews armed with explosives – jutted out from steep walls that will only get steeper as the mining operation progresses.

“I hate it,” she said.

The final product of the Vulcan Materials quarry can be crushed into materials small enough to slip through a man’s hands.

One of the tour guides on the chartered bus that rumbled down into the pit proudly explained that the ground-shaking, air-piercing percussion from mining detonations in the pit will amount to about one minute of disturbance over each full year of quarry operations. Another guide explained the processes by which rainwater is collected for use in sprayer trucks that lay down a layer of water to reduce dust from the mine.

“People have questions. They want to know what it’s going to look like, what it’s going to mean for them, how’s it going to impact their life,” Mr. Hobbs said. “It’s up to us to try to answer those questions and demonstrate that we can have proper controls here and not impact other people.”

Vulcan boasts of operating 16 existing facilities in South Carolina serving 40 counties around the state and employing 347 people. The Lexington County quarry will have 15 full-time employees and, “as the market increases, we’ll see more opportunities for other employment,” Mr. Fleming said, pointing also to the company’s potential ongoing economic impact on Batesburg-Leesville and the region.

“We employ folks here. There are a lot of parts we have to procure, so there will be business done in this community as much as we can,” he added.

One of the folks looking forward to doing business with the new Vulcan quarry is Richard Jackson, Chief Executive Officer of C.R. Jackson Inc. Mr. Jackson’s Columbia-based asphalt and paving contractor soon will become only the second tenant of the slow-growing Batesburg-Leesville industrial park, less than four miles west of the quarry.

“It’s a partnership with us, Batesburg-Leesville, Lexington County and Vulcan,” Mr. Jackson said. “We intend to be good citizens here. It’s a very good thing for the county, and it’s a necessary thing.”

The close proximity to Vulcan’s new mining operations likely will help C.R. Jackson Inc. grow its investment in Batesburg-Leesville, Mr. Jackson said.

“There’s a limited amount of rock in the existing quarries, and we’ve got to have rock if we’re going to have roads, driveways, parking lots,” he said. “I know there are some people who didn’t appreciate, didn’t want this, but together it got done and I think they will appreciate this…This quarry here gives us an opportunity to grow in both directions. We can grow toward Lexington, and we can work around Batesburg-Leesville. We feel that the growth in Lexington County is down this Hwy. 1/Hwy. 378 corridor – and we want to be a part of it.”

As the tent party unfolded, the chain of bright-yellow rock-crushing machines a short distance from the celebration stood silent, as employees at the Lexington quarry were among those enjoying the barbecue lunch and lively conversation. Once the party was over, it would be back to work – digging for granite, loading the boulders onto dump trucks, pushing them through the crushers and filling up delivery trucks with newly-washed crushed stone headed out to construction sites.

Vulcan Materials Company, against all resistance, was officially in business in Lexington County.

“We don’t create demand; we supply it,” Mr. Hobbs said. “We’re happy to be here to help build this community, and we look forward to being a good neighbor. There are good people here. We just want a chance to get to know them.”

Story by Tony Baughman / Published October 24, 2019