A Problem with a Proposed Quarry
(This 822nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 4, 2007.)
Ring-neck Marsh at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge
When we were children, most of us had the experience at lakeside or seaside of digging a hole in the sand and having it fill in with water after a very short time. Bail out the water and the hole fills in again quickly.
The first time I did this, I recall asking my mother where the water came from. She simply pointed to the lake. I wasn't quite satisfied: "Will we drain all the water?" "Keep at it," was her response. I did but, like all children, I soon tired of the task and went on to other games.
I think of that experience now when a quarry is proposed immediately adjacent to the wetlands of the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. If that mine is dug, I am afraid that my mom's lack of concern for that lake will be reversed here. Evidence suggests that the quarry will drain the ponds and marshes not only of Iroquois but also of the adjacent state Oak Orchard and Tonawanda Game Management Areas.
Granted that the proposed quarry would be dug in limestone, not sand, but anyone who has visited the sinks along the Niagara Escarpment knows that the limestone layers of this region are fine water transporters. Every spring, ponds appear seemingly from nowhere. Their origin is this very rock strata.
My understanding is that, with a few exceptions, everyone in the Shelby community is opposed to this project. The exceptions are the few landowners who stand to make big bucks selling their otherwise far less valuable land holdings.
Hearings have been held already and quarry representatives have responded to the concerns about the refuges with the expected responses. One mine representative told the Shelby Town Board, "We're pretty darned sure that we're not going to drain the swamp." And if they do? "Oh, we'll immediately take remedial action."
Will they indeed? When I first heard of this proposal, I contacted refuges across the country to see if any others faced similar problems. Among the responses was one from Jean Takekawa, manager of the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in western Washington. Jean has a gravel mine threatening her refuge. Her warnings suggest that, even if they don't drain the Iroquois marshes directly, the workers' use of large amounts of water to wash the stone can exhaust local resources and lower the water table.
Jean also called my attention to a Department of Natural Resources study of three limestone quarries in southern Minnesota reported on the web at: www.dnr.state.mn.us/publications/waters/quarries_impacts.html. Here are some of the findings of that study:
"At all three sites, the quarry dewatering has altered the local ground-water hydrology. In essence, the quarries act as huge wells, lowering the water table in the aquifer."
Evidence also suggests that a river near one of the mines "was probably a gaining stream before quarrying began and is now losing flow to the quarry."
The researchers projected water turbidity from sediment released by blasting and noted discharged water temperature rises so great (8-17°) that it could threaten local fish populations.
It turns out, according to Wendi Pencille, head of Citizens for Shelby Preservation, that we even have local evidence of the kind of problems that can arise. In nearby Clarendon, similar quarry activity lowered the water table so much that, among other things, it even shut off the town's attractive waterfall. That mine was farther from the waterfall than the proposed Shelby mine is from Iroquois.
Wendi also lists other concerns about this proposed one-half square mile mine, among them: local private and town wells drying up and traffic increasing with its attendant dust and noise, such features negatively affecting the quality of life of this peaceful rural community.
A hiker observes the marshlands from the Swallow Hollow
Trail at Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge
Photo by Mike Noonan
Another aspect of this situation bothers me. Recently Professor Mike Noonan of Canisius College and I attended a national meeting devoted to concerns about wildlife preserves. The message at the meeting: too many reserves are being hemmed in by encroaching development. We returned to find this sorry example in our own neighborhood.
Currently the proposal is being evaluated at the state Department of Environmental Conservation Avon office. Sadly, the DEC's past record suggests that too few such proposals are rejected.-- Gerry Rising