Angry residents wearing face coverings to prevent spreading COVID-19 lined the hallway into the Government Center’s meeting room July 7. Some intended to address the Thomson-McDuffie Planning Commission and explain why they oppose potential Kaolin mining operations near their homes in the county.
Ninety-two people signed the meeting sign-in sheet. Most residents who showed waited outside the Government Center. Only a half dozen indicated on the sign-in sheet that they supported the mining activity.
County manager David Crawley stood sentinel, ensuring no more than 50 people would be allowed in the large room, to sit in chairs placed several feet apart in compliance with social distancing guidelines. Those fortunate enough to gain entry witnessed a somewhat confusing and awkward exercise in local government during a nearly 3-hour long tense discourse between the public and planning commissioners.
The planning commission heard a few pro and numerous con arguments before voting to take action on two separate applications that requested a special exception to permit mining operations. One application pertained to acreage off Luckey’s Bridge Road, a parcel owned by Roy Reeves Jr., and the other was for property on Boneville Road and Wellmaker Road, a parcel owned by Culpepper Lumber Company, LLC. Imerys Performance Minerals intends to mine kaolin at these two Dearing locations. Imerys currently maintains three active permits in McDuffie County.
Monty Sanders, the lands manager for Imerys, and Lee Lemke with the Georgia Mining Association spoke in favor of the proposed mining.
“We take a lot of pride in our reclamation,” Sanders said. “Mining is a temporary impact on the land.” He said the company successfully mitigated a site it mined in the early 2000s, specifically the Seger Mine, located across from the Luckey’s Road site now under consideration.
Lemke tried to convey the economic benefits gained from mining. He said mining is conducted in 117 of Georgia’s rural counties and that in 2019 Georgia ranked 12th in the United States in the value of industrial minerals produced.
“We care about the communities in which we operate,” he said. “The Kaolin industry today is not the Kaolin industry it was 50 years ago. We mine more efficiently. We reclaim every acre of land we disturb.”
Lemke said the industry tries to be good stewards of the land and is willing to listen to residents’ concerns.
“Remember we are at a critical time in our society and jobs are really important,” he continued. “We provide those good earnings for many people in Georgia.”
Multiple residents who addressed the planning commission said they worry about kaolin mining polluting their wells and ponds. Others said their property values would go down. Several said the dust from kaolin could impact people’s health. Others said when it rains, the dust becomes like a paste that is hard to remove from vehicles.
Nick Almeter stated he and several other neighbors would not have bought property on Adam Reeves Road had they known a mine could be located adjacent to their homesteads. Almeter also contradicted mining industry representatives who said there were no complaints made, claiming he saw several posted to an EPD website.
“I think the time for mining in this particular area is past,” Almeter said.
Resident Peggy Lovejoy said the neighborhoods where mining could take place are not as rural as they once were, as more homes have been built there in recent years. Lovejoy also questioned if Imerys’ permit to surface mine off Luckey’s Bridge Road (cut down trees, prepare land for mining) had already expired.
Luckey’s Bridge Road resident and father of six Michael Hayes expressed his concern over mining safety. Other residents chimed in, citing incidents where youth who have trespassed onto active mine sites have drowned in mine pits filled with standing water. These pits are basically swimming holes created by the mining process, they said.
Boneville Road resident Bill Wagner said he had contacted an attorney about bringing a lawsuit against the mining company. Wagner also asked mining industry representatives how Imerys could possibly transport clay on a route they had suggested mining trucks could take, when the state plans to shut down Sweetwater Bridge for repairs.
Chair suggests forming liaison committee
Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Fred Guerrant informed meeting attendees that per the county’s land use code mining is a permitted use for those areas that are zoned R-1, low density residential. He said planning commissioners could recommend restrictions be placed on mining activity.
Guerrant suggested the Board of County Commissioners create a community liaison committee consisting of the county manager, the county road superintendent, a mining industry representative and two community representatives, one a resident who would be impacted by mining activity. When residents asked who would appoint the proposed committee’s members, Guerrant responded the County Commission.
This committee would examine residents’ concerns and establish regulations to mitigate impacts from mining like noise, dust and safety risks, Guerrant explained. Restrictions could include set hours for mining operations and ceasing mining when it rains. Guerrant added other stipulations could include fencing and landscaping around mine pits and installing a graveled construction entrance to knock kaolin dirt off truck tires that haul the clay.
The planning commission chair said this committee would bring a list of stipulations to county officials for them to consider. Guerrant stressed that the Board of Commissioners – which has the ultimate authority to decide the matter - would consider the planning commission’s recommendations on July 21.
A number of residents expressed their frustration and disappointment with the planning commission’s recommendations. Several loudly declared they would not vote to reelect McDuffie County Commission Chairman Charlie Newton in November. A few people who gathered on the sidewalk in front of the Government Center after the meeting suggested they form a Concerned Citizens group.
Five of the six consolidated planning commission members attended the July 7 meeting: Guerrant and Georgia Hobbs, both of whom represent McDuffie County, Howell Roberts and Penny Lowe who represent the city of Thomson, and Bobby Toulson who represents the town of Dearing. Planning commissioner Paul Coughlan, who also represents Dearing, recused himself from the meeting because he works in the mining industry, according to Guerrant.
When the vote was taken to create a community liaison committee pertaining to the special exception for Luckey’s Bridge Road, it was 3-2, with Hobbs and Roberts dissenting. When a vote for the same action was taken pertaining to Boneville Road and Wellmaker Road, Hobbs was the only commissioner who opposed it.
These requests to permit mining are not new. Applications to allow mining were brought before the planning and zoning board last year. The board was then structured slightly differently. It reviewed previous requests on both parcels on Oct. 1, 2019. The board at that time chose to not recommend approval. Final approval comes from the county commissioners and the requests were withdrawn prior to it going before the county commission in late 2019.
Charles Wallace, who was planning and zoning commission chairman in 2019 when the planning commission denied previous applications for kaolin mining, spoke as a citizen against the two new applications.
“It disturbs me that we as citizens have no more say-so over our county,” Wallace said. He said the mining industry had pushed their way in and could do whatever they wanted.
“I just challenge you tonight to make the right decision,” Wallace said.
Wallace had reiterated residents’ concerns over mining’s environmental and quality of life impacts, and suggested a better direction for growth in the county would be to encourage home building and draw on the population growth spurred by Fort Gordon, as has Columbia County.
“Lets replace excavators and dump trucks with custom built homes and landscaped yards,” he said. According to Wallace, this type of growth could expand the county’s tax base by several million dollars.
Email suggesting conditions for mining
The McDuffie Progress acquired a copy of a forwarded email that was sent from Guerrant to Planning & Zoning Administrator Chase Beggs at 8:38 a.m. on July 3. The original email came from planning commissioner Paul Coughlan, who had recused himself from voting on the special exceptions to allow mining. It was resent from Coughlan to Guerrant at 1:10 p.m. on July 1 from a personal email address because the initial email was apparently not received.
The initial email was sent at 11:21 a.m. on July 1 from Coughlan’s office email address at sepm.us (Southeastern Performance Minerals LLC in Deepstep, Ga.). The email suggested the planning commission establish a community liaison committee, listed who would serve on the committee and detailed conditions that could be placed on mining activity to mitigate impacts to residents. The email contained the same points that Guerrant had suggested during the meeting.