|It's The Pits
By Tina Traster
November 19, 2009 -- I’m tired. Noise from a nearby quarry, which operates at night during certain times of the year, disrupts my sleep.
OK, I should have known that there was an open-pit mine less than a mile from my Rockland County house when I bought it four years ago. Silly me for not asking my Realtor, “Is there, perchance, a rock-crushing operation in the vicinity that will grind giant boulders through the night?” Why she didn’t voluntarily mention it to me, I cannot fathom.
Tonight, my husband and I are inserting into our bedroom window frame a 2-inch-thick insulation mat made of closed-cell foam we bought for $167 from the Super Soundproofing Company. My husband uses a giant pair of shears to cut the mat to size. It’s dense. Together we hold it against the window and press until it’s filled the space. The blacked-out window makes my bedroom look like a stash house.
The Tilcon mine sits on 165 acres in the midst of suburbia in West Nyack. It’s responsible for 3½ million tons of basalt, or trap rock, for roads and building projects. When neighbors complain too loudly about noise or dust from the mine, which is owned by international conglomerate CRH, the spokespeople say the quarry has been operating since 1868, and that it has the right to keep doing as it pleases because it is “grandfathered.”
My house was built in the 1850s. Why isn’t my right to a good night’s sleep grandfathered, I wonder?
Mines that came into existence before the federal 1976 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act enjoy broad freedom to operate as they did 100 years ago. Neither my town nor the county has any teeth to regulate the operation. The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is the regulatory agency.
When I first moved in and complained to town and county officials about the noise, I realized, not happily, that some battles are too big to be won. How can a suburban mom fight a state-regulated, federally protected international behemoth?
I thought we had a chance back in September 2006, when citizens packed a public meeting concerning Tilcon’s efforts to renew its five-year mining permit from the state DEC. An angry mob told story after story of how the Tilcon mine blights our lives. Tilcon stocked the room with its employees, who came to say the mine is a benevolent employer.
The meeting was so heated, DEC officials said they would extend the comment period. Then, days later, the local paper reported Tilcon’s permit had been renewed. David and Goliath. No one was surprised. Just sucker-punched. But then there was another twist.
Tilcon and the town sat down to negotiate. Tilcon needed town approval for a road it wants to build to relocate its entrance near the New York State Thruway and away from a local road. For a change, the town had leverage, and Tilcon, which tells everyone it “likes to be a good neighbor,” hatched a $40 million plan to upgrade its operation. The new equipment, Tilcon said, would reduce noise. The town and mine agreed to conduct twice-annual noise studies.
Noise would be lessened by relocating the crushing operations 70 feet below ground and installing sound-dampening equipment. The target date for completing the project was early 2009, but work on it continues.
The continuous, thunderous roar from the plant is at its worst in mid-autumn, when the leaves start falling. It is mostly acres of woods that separate my house from the mine, and that natural noise barrier is completely gone by November. You would think a city girl who has been reared on sirens, squealing buses and even the occasional gunshot would be at home with noise, but industrial noise is like having vertigo. It’s nauseating.
Thanksgiving has a double meaning for me now. It is, of course, that great American holiday when we gather to gorge. It’s also the time of the year when the mine shuts down overnight operations until spring.
Last April, I waited with trepidation and realized the Great Recession had an unintended benefit. With a drop in demand for construction, the mine was silent at night, and I slept like a bear that forgot to come out of hibernation. As I watched the news, I secretly prayed the economy would continue to stall. Sleep is a more precious commodity than anything that’s actually left in my mutual fund portfolio.
I don’t know if it was the stimulus package that ended my sweet nights, but one evening after we turned off the TV, I heard the familiar drone.
“It’s back,” I said tearfully to my husband.
“Yep,” he said. “The recession must be over.”
Before writing this column, I called my town supervisor to get an update on the mine’s improvements. I identified myself as both a reporter and a citizen, so I was invited to tour the new subterranean facility and meet with town officials and the mine’s president, John Cooney, Jr.
Cooney told me he was sure the new equipment will reduce noise. He also said the mine will continue night operations when there is demand “because the mine is in business to make money.”
I bet the folks who sell Super Soundproofing mats are doing pretty well, too.
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