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Vulcan's Uncertain Future in Lorton

Vulcan Quarry's special-use permit may not be renewed based on neighbor's complaints of structural damage.

Cooper drives around the deep cut into the earth known as the Vulcan Quarry on Ox Road in Lorton, pointing out various attributes in the rock and distances to nearby houses.

"The first pit was here in 1952 and the retail operation opened in 1954," said Cooper, manager of the Graham Plant. Named after the quarry's first owner, that is how the Lorton quarry is referred to within Vulcan, which purchased the operation in 1956.

After more than 50 years, however, the quarry and its operators are facing a challenge unforeseen when Lorton was better known for the prison than being the fastest growing area of Fairfax County. For the first time, residents who live in new homes near the quarry are asking the county's Board of Zoning Appeals to deny Vulcan the special-use permit it needs to operate.

The residents believe that vibrations from the twice-weekly blasting at the quarry are causing damage to their homes that range from cracked foundations to broken light fixtures.

ON TUESDAY, March 20, Vulcan hosted an informational meeting at Lorton Station Elementary School, where residents could talk with a group of 10 experts from Vulcan and other agencies involved with the blasting at the quarry on Ox Road. Only a few residents attended the meeting, Cooper said.

"We're trying to do our best to educate people on what they're feeling," Cooper said, adding that he's willing and ready to take any concerned resident on a tour of the quarry.

Vulcan has also installed seismographs at homes where owners are concerned about damages they believe are caused by the blasting. Vulcan detonates between 20,000 pounds and 25,000 pounds of explosives twice a week at the quarry and the explosives used are brought in on the day of the blast from an outside location. No explosives are kept on-site, Cooper said. "The first step is to drill 6-inch vertical holes into the ground, which is where we place the explosives," Cooper explained.

The blasts are detonated using electric triggers, which are more expensive to use but safer. Each blast produces between 20 tons and 30 tons of granite rock, which is later crushed to various sizes depending on the need for that particular week. Five 100-ton trucks are used to deliver some of the rock to a processing plant at another location.

Cooper thinks some of the residents' complaints stem from the proximity of the blasting to some of the newer homes.

"We've progressed to blasting on the northwest ridge of the quarry. You can look out and see some of the homes in Occoquan Overlook, but you can't see the homes in SouthPointe," he said.

AT THE QUARRY, blasting is done in a pattern of ridges, each one slightly more shallow and closer to the bottom of the quarry than the last. Cooper compares the pattern to an upside-down wedding cake, with inverted tiers leading to the quarry's floor.

"Right now, we're blasting 45 to 50 feet wide benches," he said. "Once we progress to the north, we'll start moving back toward the center. We have 18 more months of blasting in the northern part of the quarry before we start moving back to the south."

There is a buffer zone between the quarry and the new homes, but the lack of foliage in the winter and early spring means there's nothing buffering the sound of the blasts. From the edge of the quarry, there is a space of 320 feet to the closest homes in Occoquan Overlook and 180 feet in SouthPointe, Cooper said.

To further eliminate noise produced by the rock crushing part of the operation, the machines were placed 100 feet down from the top ridge of the quarry.

"There were no neighbors around when we built this, but we're always looking to design the quietest operation possible," Cooper said.

Residents in homes and apartments in Westminster at Lake Ridge, a retirement community, located just across the Occoquan River to the south of the Vulcan operation and built in 1993, can look out their windows to see what's going on there, Cooper said. He's unaware of any complaints coming from those neighbors.

"They're home all day, they know what's going on here," he said.

Before trucks are allowed to leave the quarry and head out to make their deliveries, they are weighed twice to ensure the load isn't too heavy, Cooper said. If a truck is more than 20 pounds over its gross allowed weight, it does not receive a certificate and cannot legally leave the site. The trucks also pass through a washing station that removes excess dust from their wheels to avoid tracking that dust onto local roads, Cooper said.

The operating hours for the quarry are 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. during the week, Cooper said, but if an emergency were to arise, like the flooding in the Huntington area of Alexandria last summer, the quarry will stay open for gravel delivery.

Because the quarry is located in an area not zoned for blasting or quarry use in the county's Comprehensive Plan, Vulcan must apply for a renewal of their special-use permit every five years. The application, originally filed last April, is scheduled to be voted on by the BZA April 24.

"We did not anticipate what we have now," Cooper said, referring to the concerns and complaints from residents.

"We tried to do some up-front work with the Realtors to let people know we were here before buying their homes," said Bruce Smith, Northern Virginia operations manager for Vulcan. "We put signs up and had to give some of the developers a larger easement."

DESPITE THEIR ATTEMPTS, however, many residents have said they were unaware of the quarry until they heard the first blasts after moving into their new homes. Cooper and Smith said Vulcan is prepared to open its doors for as many community meetings or tours as is necessary, even offering a meeting with Occoquan Overlook residents when complaints first starting coming in.

"I think we had three people out of the 54 lots in that neighborhood at the meeting," Cooper said.

Smith said the company tries to be a "good corporate neighbor" in all its locations. In fact, Fairfax County holds the Vulcan operation in Lorton to standards more restrictive than are required by the state, Smith said. Virginia standards dictate that each blast produce a sound registering less than 133 decibels and move air at a speed less than 1 inch per second peak velocity, Smith said. The Fairfax County requirements demand a 0.4 peak particle velocity and a 130 air over pressure decibel reading, he said.

"One shot out of every 10 is allowed to go up to 0.6 peak particle velocity, but we've never gone over 0.4," Smith said. "You have to give Fairfax County credit for what they've done to keep their residents safe."

According to several series of books, tests and studies of the impact of quarry blasting in residential homes, the levels set by Virginia are too low to cause structural damage. Following that logic, the blasts set off at Vulcan could not be causing the foundation cracks or septic field problems neighbors are reporting.

WHEN FAIRFAX WATER began building the new water treatment plant just above the quarry, engineers and technicians ran a series of tests to make sure their sensitive equipment would not be effected by the blasting, said Jeanne Bailey, spokeswoman for Fairfax Water.

"We had a treatment plant 50 years ago next to the quarry," she said. "For us to say what problems could be caused by the blasting would be pure speculation because we've never had any problems."

There have been no problems in the new building either, Bailey said. "We run a lot of precise instruments and chemical feed systems, a lot of equipment that, if there were issues, would be jarred on a daily basis," she said. "We haven't had a single issue." Any complaints about the blasting usually end up in the office of the Fairfax County Fire Marshal.

"We don't usually go down for the blasting," said David McKernan, deputy chief of the fire prevention division. "We are notified, but the state code specifically says we have no authority in a quarry like that."

McKernan said his office is responsible for monitoring the seismographs installed at homes to monitor the impact of the blasting. "We try to go out and determine if [Vulcan] is meeting the conditions of their special use permit," he said. "We take out the same tools they use to measure the vibrations, the speed of the blast and make sure they're operating within those limitations." While Vulcan has never been found to be operating in excess of Fairfax County requirements, McKernan said he believes the blasting industry needs stricter regulations.

"Especially here, with our density, we have issues that we need to be monitoring more closely," he said. "We can be there for every blast, we just need to be invited."

McKernan said there's a long list of books that state the damages found in these neighboring homes are common and can be found in neighborhoods that are nowhere near quarries.

"If the National Association of Homebuilders wrote a whole book about it, it must be normal," he said. "But that doesn't explain what caused it."

THERE ARE 135 quarries in Virginia, none of which face as strict regulations as the Vulcan site in Lorton, said Thomas Carroll, manager of business development and government affairs for the mideast division of the Vulcan Materials Company. However, "not all quarries have similar growth around them," he added.

To determine if the Lorton site is producing less rock than other quarries of its size is difficult because of the conditions under which it operates and a lack of a comparable situation elsewhere in Virginia, Carroll said.

Despite these statistical reassurances, residents are insistent that the blasting is damaging their homes. Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) has written at least one letter to Vulcan requesting some changes.

"The issue isn't with the fact that they're meeting the standards the state and county has set," Hyland said. "The blasts are close to these houses. The new homeowners are experiencing the shock of the blasts in their homes and they're not happy."

While there may not be a clear answer to what appears to be a cause-and-effect situation, Hyland said the question isn't whether blasts are creating the damage, but whether "Vulcan has to take steps to reduce or eliminate the effects of blasting in these homes."

If the BZA cannot find a way to make Vulcan comply with any proposed changes, Hyland has a simple solution. "If the impact can't be reduced, the BZA should consider not extending their permit," he said.