For years, residents within a mile or two of the Vulcan quarry in Lorton have heard the twice-weekly thuds of explosions, watched vases bounce across tables and pictures rattle on walls. Up until recently, however, they thought the noise and tremors were a part of their lives that could not be changed.
When news started circulating that Vulcan needed a special exception from the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals to operate its quarry, as the area was not zoned for that particular use in the county’s Comprehensive Plan, neighbors began to talk.
"We didn’t know they had to go back to the county for approval every five years," said Kelly Dragonette, a Southpointe resident. "If ever there was a window of opportunity, this is it."
On Thursday, Nov. 30, a group of about 30 residents in the Lorton area gathered at Halley Elementary to compare notes on damage to their homes from the Vulcan blasts and determine their course of action before the application is heard by the BZA in January.
Those who live near the quarry, located on Ox Road just south of the new Fairfax Water treatment plant, have two major complaints they want Vulcan to address: the amount of traffic created by trucks loaded with tons of stone leaving the quarry daily, and the impact the blasting has on their lives, through the noise and tremors caused by the explosions.
REPRESENTATIVES FROM Vulcan have made presentations to the South County Federation about their application, and until some residents began to talk about their concerns, the Federation would have given its approval easily, said Tim Rizer, vice president of the Federation and a member of its Land Use Committee.
Vulcan has preliminarily agreed to consider paying for additional police presence along Lorton Road, the route many truck drivers use when transporting their loads of stone because of its easy access to Interstate 95. An estimated 350 to 850 trucks leave Vulcan each day, Dragonette said.
"After three meetings, we haven’t had any suggestions from Vulcan to address our concerns about the blasting," she said. "They’re not really talking about anything."
Although the quarry has been in business since the 1950s, the area surrounding it has undergone drastic changes in the past few years since the prison closed, said Mike Grogan, another Southpointe resident. As the population has increased, homes have been built closer to the quarry, and the people who live there weren’t prepared for the blasts.
Many of the residents who live near the quarry thought they were the only ones feeling the aftershocks of the blasts in their homes, Grogan said, and didn’t report their concerns or complaints to anyone. It was only at the November meeting of the South County Federation that Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) became aware of the situation, he said.
"I’ve lived in Southpointe since 1994, and I’ve called Vulcan about 20 times," said Tim Thomas. "I’ve been trying to get seismographic information, but I’ve got nothing from (Vulcan). I’ve been asked to be put on an e-mail notification for when they’re going to blast and I’ve got nothing."
IN PREPARATION for the Jan. 23 meeting in front of the BZA, Grogan urged the residents to ask lots of questions about Vulcan to various county officials to determine if they’re following proper protocol with the state Board of Health, the county Fire and Rescue Department and any other office that may have some sway with the application.
"They’re not in compliance with the Comprehensive Plan, that’s why they need the special exception," Grogan said.
As residents discussed their strategy for attending the public hearing prior to the BZA’s vote, Grogan said the best way to go would be to have anecdotal statements about damage to people’s homes, stories about broken items or gaps between chimneys and homes, to illustrate to the BZA the impact of the blasting.
"I have to replace light bulbs every week," said Carla Little-Kopach. She said she wanted to get the quarry closed for good, for the sake of the safety of her community.
"We’ve got kids going to the high school right down the road from the quarry now that weren’t there when this place started," she said. "It’s just a matter of time before it’s a bus that gets hit. I don’t want to play politics with this, I want this changed."
Sandie Daude said the group might want to consider filing a class-action lawsuit against the quarry if changes aren’t made.
"No one said you will be hearing massive explosions twice a week all year," she said.
The blasts have become weaker, she said, and she guesses they’re not using the full 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of explosives that Vulcan is permitted by law.
"Today there were two lower blasts, like whump-whump," she said. "I can live with whump-whump. I can’t live with these huge explosions."
Rizer said the best bet for having changes made at Vulcan, whether it’s to use lower strength blasts or to reduce the number of trucks they’re permitted to fill daily, is to petition the BZA in large numbers and to argue that the Lorton area today isn’t what it was 50 years ago.
"Those of us here, we need to make it clear that we’re here to complain," Rizer said. "Maybe five years ago, no one said anything about the blasting. This time, we all are."
THE VULCAN QUARRY began operating in 1952, said plant manager Jim Cooper. A special use permit is needed to operate because the land where the quarry sits is zoned for residential and light industrial use.
Cooper said he has talked with many residents, most from the Southpointe area, and has addressed their concerns about blasting by trying to inform them about the operation of the quarry, its blasting practices and thorough reassurances that their blasting cannot and does not cause property damage.
Part of the conditions of Vulcan's permit requires the blasting to be weaker than 0.4 inches of moved air per second over the blast site, as read by a seismograph. Virginia regulations are slightly higher, allowing the blasts to be as strong as 1.0 inches per second, while federal research has shown that no damage can be caused with blasts up to 2.0 inches per second.
"The biggest misconception is that we cause property damage," Cooper said. "If you live near the quarry, you'll feel the blasts because that's a fact of life. But we do not cause property damage."
When asked if lighter amounts of explosives were being used prior to the BZA vote on the permit, Cooper said he's gone out of his way to make sure the community knows all the information he can give out about the blasts, including when they'll take place and how strong they'll be, in order to prevent this sort of accusation.
"We've done everything we can to get their trust," he said. "We've gone throughout the community and asked for any concerns to be addressed to me. I've answered them all."
Cooper did reiterate that Vulcan is willing to pay for additional police coverage in front of the quarry and would support prohibiting trucks from using Lorton Road but did not have any discussions about limiting the number of trucks that enter and leave the quarry daily.
"We've also offered to do some work on the curves in the roads that need to be repaired," he said.