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Taking Boom out of Vulcan's Thunder?

Board of Zoning Appeals defers decision on quarry's special use permit.

For the first time since it opened in 1972, the Vulcan Quarry in Lorton may not have its special use permit renewed after nearly a dozen residents asked the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals to deny their requests.

After three hours of debate and citizen testimony, the BZA voted to defer a decision until an April meeting, hoping to obtain more research about what happens when up to 40 pounds of explosives are detonated near residential neighborhoods.

Vulcan Quarry has been operating a multi-million dollar gravel mining business in Lorton since 1972, when the prison accounted for most of the population in the south-eastern part of Fairfax County.

Thirty-five years later, with more than 10,000 homes and new residents who chose to live there, the quarry is in danger of losing its special use permit.

"Until my neighbor moved in two months ago, I was the closest resident to the quarry," said Mary Draude, a resident of Occoquan Overlook. She and a dozen other Lorton residents asked the Board of Zoning Appeals to deny Vulcan's Special Use Permit to operate the quarry in land zoned to be use for residential or commercial purposes.

The special use permit is up for renewal every five years, but this is the first time the BZA has heard complaints from residents, concerned about the loud, twice-weekly blasting and what they claim is damage to their homes as a result of the explosions.

"Our quality of life is being eroded by the truck traffic from the quarry on Route 123 (Ox Road)," Draude said.

When she and her husband, Thomas Draude, first picked out the 1-acre lot for their new home, they were never informed about the quarry or its blasting practices.

SPEAKING ON behalf of 22 homeowners in Occoquan Overlook, Thomas Draude said Vulcan told him that damage to his house, including a cracked septic tank, could not be caused by the blasting because the vibrations from the explosions are "too low."

"Our homes were not built on the quarry site but they still suffer the effects of blasting," Thomas Draude said. "We bought our home with the assumption that because it was a residential area, it was safe for residential use."

Ed Vallejos, who moved into his home a month ago, said he wouldn't have chosen his home if he knew about the blasting.

"Everything shakes in my house," he said. "There's a lot of scientific data being passed around but that doesn't tell you what it feels like in a home when they're blasting. I'm very concerned about what this will do to the value of my home in the future, if I want to re-sell it."

SOME BELIEVE that complaints may have been sent to Vulcan since the quarry opened, but they were not put on any sort of record because they were not put through the proper channels, said Southpointe resident Carla Little-Kopach.

"When we first heard the blast, we were told to call Vulcan and they'd come out to put a seismograph on our property," she said. "Sure enough, they did that and came back a few months later and said the numbers were nothing to worry about. We didn't realize you were here and we should bring our concerns to you," she said to the BZA members.

Even the residents who lived in Fairfax County and knew of the quarry were unprepared for what living near the blasts would be like, said Sandy Lyons.

"We did our due diligence and went to the quarry to experience a blast there," she said. "We were told the blasting would not affect our daily lives. We had to learn on our own that experiencing a blast inside your home is very different."

After eight months in their new home, Lyons said the results of living close to the quarry are visible.

"Our house shakes, the lights vibrate, once I saw a vase jump across a table top," she said.

One man, a Realtor who said he knew nothing of the quarry when he purchased his own home, came close to tears when telling the BZA that his son asked him if their ceiling was going to fall on them shortly after they moved into their home.

Greg Riegle, a lawyer from McGuire Woods speaking on behalf of Vulcan, told the BZA that his client is operating well within the limits set by Fairfax County, which have more restrictive operating rules than the state or federal government.

He referred to certain conditions included in Vulcan's special use permit, which restrict blasting to twice a week, between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., and limits blasting vibrations to no more than 0.4 inches per second, compared with a state limit of 1.0 inches per second.

"It takes a blast of 10.0 inches per second or stronger to crack concrete," Riegle said. The shock waves caused by the explosions are roughly the same strength as "normal, everyday activities inside a home" and could not be responsible for damages like cracked foundations or septic tanks.

THE SEISMOGRAPHS Vulcan places at homes where residents call and complain not only register the blasting at Vulcan, but any disturbances that may come from nearby construction sites or, prior to six months ago, the expansion of Route 123, Riegle said.

If the amount of explosives used in the blasting, currently between 14 and 40 pounds per detonation, are reduced, Riegle said more frequent blasts may be needed to achieve the same demands for rock and gravel.

"The rock we're blasting through has seams and fissures, and if we don't blast through until they're broken, it's not safe for our workers," he said.

To help ease the worry of residents, or perhaps better prepare them for the blasts, Riegle said Vulcan is considering a wider-reaching e-mail to be sent to residents in the vicinity of the quarry to let them know when blasts will occur.

"Vulcan doesn't want to come back and hear its neighbors complain," Riegle said. "If it's any consolation, there's a number of people from Vulcan here who really want to continue to have a dialogue with our neighbors. At least now we know who they are."

BZA member Norman Byers submitted a lengthy "wish list" of more information he felt would be necessary before the board could make a decision on the permit, including a conversation with the Prince William County Board of Supervisors about their concerns with the quarry and a transportation study to determine the amount of truck traffic to and from the quarry each day.

Following suit, Boardmember James Hart asked for more input from Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), who sent a letter to the BZA requesting the permit be denied because of the residents' concerns.

The permit is scheduled to be discussed at the BZA during a meeting on Tuesday, April 24.