2017-10-18 / Front Page

Water is top concern about Silica mining plans

by Kate Shunney &
Trish Rudder

West Virginia DEP geologist A.R. Snyder (center) answers questions about proposed sand mining. West Virginia DEP geologist A.R. Snyder (center) answers questions about proposed sand mining. Berkeley Springs water was the main focus of a meeting last week about plans by U.S. Silica to mine sand closer to the downtown area.

Berkeley Springs business owners, residents and elected officials told state environmental regulators that sand mine blasting and digging so close to the Warm Springs pose a serious risk to the town’s public water supply and tourist attraction.

West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Division of Mining and Reclamation held the four-hour informal conference about U.S. Silica’s plans at the Moose lodge on Tuesday, October 10.

DEP officials said they wanted to collect input about Silica’s request to move mining to 39.7 acres at the southern tip of their property.

Company officials have said extending their quarry operation closer to town will add several years to mining and processing work at the Berkeley Springs plant.

DEP Engineer Clarence Wright collects public comments on October 10 about a U.S. Silica quarry application. DEP Engineer Clarence Wright collects public comments on October 10 about a U.S. Silica quarry application. Sand mining at the existing quarry could end within five years, U.S. Silica officials have said. The company’s existing quarry permit covers 534 acres.

But many residents, business owners, the town mayor Scott Merki, the town water committee chair, Bath Councilman Chris Chapman, the department head of the town-owned water company, Berkeley Springs Water Works (BSWW) Terry Largent, as well as the Warm Springs Watershed Association strongly disapprove of granting U.S. Silica permission to mine closer to town.

Merki gave a letter to the DEP that pointed out the town water committee’s “serious concerns.”

“[S]outhward expansion of mining and quarry activities towards the Town of Bath associated with extraction of sandstone by U.S. Silica poses a threat to the hydrogeologic setting of the aquifer from which the Town draws its water supply and which is the primary source of the Town’s economy around the famed Berkeley Springs and the spas and other businesses that rely upon tourism from the famed Springs for their livelihood,” their letter said.

A picture of mining plans was shown at the public conference. A picture of mining plans was shown at the public conference. Merki wrote that studies of the springs indicate the recharge area for the springs is “quite large and extends into the zone that U.S. Silica wants to mine.” U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and West Virginia University (WVU) experts found in their survey that the area under consideration for mining is part of the zone of influence for the springs.

The area is shaped like a three-dimensional cone tilted toward the south. Water flows along the path of least resistance, and “when rock layers are blasted away and pits are dug deep into bedrock, new paths of least resistance are created,” town officials wrote.

Warm Springs Watershed Association president Kate Lehman said the watershed association is to protect Warm Springs Run and geologists are concerned about possible water flow disruption.

“There could be possible damage to our springs if blasting is too close,” she said.

The springs are the sole source of drinking water for the town and 1,359 public water company customers. The only secondary water source is the Potomac River.

“There is currently no water plant in place to draw water from that secondary source,” Merki wrote.

In his letter, Merki said that both the county and town comprehensive plans have goal’s to protect the community water system.

“Protection is critical for the area determined through studies to be the spring recharge area, and designated by the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health as a Deep Water Protection Area.”

West Virginia law gives the DEP director the authority to “delete certain areas from all quarrying operations,” Merki said, if quarrying destroys or pollutes them and makes them “impossible to reclaim.”

“If we lose our springs, we lose our town,” Merki said at the meeting. “Our springs need to be protected.”

Gareth Foulds was among more than three dozen people who signed in at the event.

Foulds told DEP Sr. Engineer Clarence Wright that he is worried about the mining proposal because “Berkeley Springs is built on the springs.”

“The Silica people take their sand and they’re gone,” Foulds said. He said if blasting or mining affect the town’s water supply – the warm springs – then “Berkeley Springs is out of business.”

“No one knows the springs’ geology,” he told Wright.

That concern was repeated by many people.

DEP geologist A.R. Snyder said it’s very unlikely that mining activity closer to town could affect the town’s springs and water supply.

“I would say you could rule that out,” said Snyder.

Many pressed him for details.

He said mining would only be done in the sandstone layer, not in the limestone layer which divides the eastern and western slopes of Warm Springs Ridge.

He said mining would be done down to 575 feet elevation. According to displays, the ridge top is as high as 1,100 feet in the proposed mining area. That means U.S. Silica could remove pockets of sandstone up to 500 feet deep from the ridge.

Snyder said geology studies lead him to conclude there will be no effect on the springs.

Kayla Bucheimer, U.S. Silica’s environmental manager, said those studies make her confident that new mining won’t disrupt the warm springs or the public water supply. U.S. Silica’s consulting geologist, Jerry Price, came to the same conclusion, he said.

According to Price, miners would only encounter groundwater in a small portion of the proposed mining area – on roughly two acres. That water is at a higher elevation than the springs and downstream of its flow, he said.

Lehman said the proposed mining activity is too close to the “zone of critical concern” around the town’s springs.

“It is a significant risk to the source,” Lehman said. “It’s too big of a risk.”

According to Snyder, West Virginia quarry applications don’t specifically ask how close mine activity will be to a public water source. Coal mine applications do, he said.

DEP officials from the Office of Explosives and Blasting fielded questions about U.S. Silica’s blasting plan for the parcel they hope to mine.

They said residents within half a mile of mining areas would be alerted to blasting three minutes ahead of time with an audible signal. People living or working within that half-mile area would also be sent a notice describing how to recognize the signal.

Traffic along U.S. 522 would be stopped during blasting, as it is now. DEP officials said Silica would likely blast twice each month.

James Ratcliffe of the DEP’s blasting section said residents may feel vibrations from mine blasting, but shouldn’t experience any damage to their homes or be affected by any dust from blasting.

“We’re looking for no off site impact,” Ratcliffe said.

Homeowners within 1,500 feet of the proposed mine area were sent letters last spring offering a free structural survey of their home and wells.

Bucheimer said about 30 pre-blast surveys were completed. Homeowners can still have the survey done, up to 30 days before new blasting, she said.

Sandmine officials expect they will be finish mining in their existing permit area during the first three months of 2018.

The DEP has 30 days to issue a decision on the company’s application to add new mining acreage. But DEP officials said they will ask U.S. Silica to answer public comments about their application before making a final decision.

After that, commenters and the company will have 30 days to appeal the decision to the Quarry Board, according to permit supervisor Clarence Wright.

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