“Approximately 125,000 people a year recreate on Pigeon Mountain,” said Diane Cousineau, local resident and caver, “and I’d say that’s a very conservative estimate.”
Vulcan wants to expand its existing rock quarry along the eastern part of the Crockford-Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management Area. The company has paperwork which shows it has the right to do this.
Many trails hikers, mountain bikers, and cavers use will have to be moved or closed, Cousineau said. Ellison’s Cave, which holds the deepest free-fall cave pit in the country, and the recently discovered Flowing Stone Cave may have to be closed due to blasting from quarry expansion and the resulting dangers of collapsing caves and flying debris.
Flowing Stone Cave, named for the unusual rock formations created by running water, is located where Vulcan intends to expand the quarry .
Chattanooga Metal Company held the original rights to the minerals and leased those rights to Patten Rock Products Corp. in the 1970s.
Vulcan bought the lease from Patten in 1999. The lease is good for 25 years unless Vulcan fails to pay the minimum fee of $2,400 per year.
“We initially submitted plans for an expansion, but those plans have been withdrawn for over a year, so currently there is no application at the state for any type of expansion,” said Jimmy Fleming, Vulcan manager of human resources and governmental affairs.
“We agreed with the state to go through and do an extensive environmental study to determine what types of natural resources are on this property prior to any application,” Fleming added.
Vulcan’s active quarry is currently about 25 acres, but the company intends to expand another 140. The company owns the mineral rights to more than 800 acres, said Noel Holcomb, assistant director of the state Wildlife Resources Division.
The total area covered by expansion, 165 acres, is roughly equivalent to 125 football fields. The 800 acres of which Vulcan owns mineral rights are roughly equivalent to 605 football fields.
The state owns the land and mineral rights, but not the lease to mine the minerals. The state had two chances — the last in 1995 — to terminate the lease, but the Department of Natural Resources, for whatever reason, simply didn’t follow through.
Though the state owns the land, the lease shows Vulcan is allowed to take the minerals in the land. This could threaten acres of caves and endanger wildlife.
The wildlife preserve was established under Jimmy Carter’s Heritage Trust Act while he was governor of Georgia. Former Gov. Zell Miller signed an executive order “to protect said real property in the most effective manner available, in order to confer the best and most important benefit to the public.”
“If this is the most protected land in the state of Georgia then what can they do if they own the mineral rights on unprotected land?” said Cousineau.
The quarry expansion also has local residents concerned for their homes.
Blasting from the current quarry already shakes Darla Smalley’s house, which sits about a mile away from the current blasting area.
If Vulcan is allowed to expand, then the edge of the expansion will meet the back part of Smalley’s property. Smalley fears structural damage to her house if Vulcan’s plans go through.
Structural damage isn’t the only problem for nearby residents. There is no access to public water in the area and well water becomes muddy and unusable for days after some blasts, Smalley said.
The blasting is regulated to ensure vibration limits are below those levels which would cause damage to structures and caves, Fleming said.
“I can’t imagine destroying a wildlife preserve for something like this,” said Smalley.
“All we can do is express our concern and make an appeal to the state,” said Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell.
To voice your opinion, contact Gov. Roy Barnes, Room 203, State Capitol, Atlanta, Ga., 30334. Those wanting more information can check the Friends of Pigeon Mountain website at http://www.pigeonmountain.org or contact Cousineau at (706) 764-2296