PERKASIE, Pa. (AP) — A newly reopened East Rockhill Quarry pits a $224 million turnpike contract against a small group of residents accustomed to a quiet way of life.

For more than three decades, residents of a wooded section of East Rockhill, north of the Pennridge Airport, have enjoyed all the offerings that living close to nature brings. Blue herons nest nearby, state game lands abut many properties, and peace and quiet reign supreme.

But now, some say that tranquility is exploding.

"We live in a quiet area, and all of the sudden you have industry just come into your backyard," says Ryan Gottshall, of North Rockhill Road. "All of us are concerned."

The industry in question is a long-dormant quarry located smack in the middle of the area. Known to most as the "Rockhill Quarry," the site was last fully operational in the early 1980s. But last December, Gottshall said he awoke one morning to find heavy equipment moving around the edges of the quarry property, just a stone's throw from his house.

He decided to investigate, heading to the East Rockhill Township building to speak with township manager Marianne Morano the week before Christmas.

"She told us that it was going to go fully active," Gottshall said. "I said, 'Wow, how many people really know about this?'"

Now, Gottshall and his neighbors find themselves at the center of what may be a brewing battle between the township and the property's owners, Hanson Aggregates Pennsylvania, of Allentown, as well as the quarry's lessee, the Richard E. Pierson Materials Corp., of Pilesgrove, New Jersey.

There's a lot on the line: in November, Pierson was awarded a $224 million contract by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for a "total reconstruction and widening" of the Northeast Extension for seven miles, from Lansdale to a mile marker due west of Sellersville. Pierson's bid was about $11 million less than the second lowest, saving the turnpike and its users significant money. Jeff Sieg, director of communications for Lehigh Hanson, Hanson Aggregates' Texas-based parent company, confirmed plans call for rock from the quarry to be used for the turnpike project.

But it appears East Rockhill may be challenging the quarry's re-opening.

At a township meeting on Dec. 26, in which 21 residents voiced concerns over the quarry, town officials were initially noncommittal about any course of action. But in a Jan. 22 email to this news organization, Morano said the township had denied a zoning permit application for extractive operations at the quarry because it requires a special exception from the Zoning Hearing Board.

However, a few days later, the township posted a notice on its website stating the state Department of Environment had notified them blasting would begin anyway on Feb. 2. The blasting occurred as scheduled.

Asked whether the township believed the blasting was in violation of its zoning, Morano only said that Pierson had appealed the town's determination that a special exception is needed, and a public hearing has been scheduled for 6 p.m. March 14 at Pennridge High School.

This news organization also asked Morano what changed in the town's code to now require a special exception since the quarry last fully operated in the 1980s. An answer for that specific question was not provided.

Sieg said Lehigh Hanson was also unsure what changed with the town's zoning.

"We believe we have a right to mine (and) resume operations," Sieg said.

Asked for the DEP's take, agency spokeswoman Virginia Cain wrote in an email that Hanson had maintained an active state quarry permit through the decades because it had "been able to demonstrate" removal of at least 500 tons of rock per year, the state's minimum requirement.

The DEP did briefly suspend blasting permission this year when it asked Hanson to hire an engineer to investigative the potential presence of asbestos. But the cessation was lifted on Jan. 25 after the resulting investigation found none, clearing any state limitations on blasting.

Bracing for impact

Ahead of the Feb. 2 blasting at the quarry, members of the Fuhrmeister family gathered in anticipation their Rockhill Road home, less than half a mile away.

The six-member family has lived in a modern log cabin father Paul Fuhrmeister built in 1986 on a 1.5-acre property. He and his wife Nancy previously lived in Northeast Philadelphia.

"Everything became concrete. I just wanted a nice place to bring up my children. I thought it would be a good move to come up here," Fuhrmeister said.

The Fuhrmeisters' rustic front porch overlooks a small valley, sloping up into a steep hill, the side of which was blasted open by previous quarry operations. At sunset, light from the west bounces off the exposed rock, making it glow. But sound also rebounds off the façade back toward the Fuhrmeister house. Through January it had been the sounds of earth-moving equipment, but then came the explosion.

"It shook the house," said Paul Fuhrmeister Jr. "You could feel how deep that explosion went. People live way too close for them to be doing that."

Paul Jr., 36, is among the residents most actively organizing against the quarry. He started a Change.org petition that has garnered about 1,300 signatures, highlighting concerns including impacts to wildlife, ground water, noise pollution and road traffic.

"Nobody was up there for over 30 years. It's turned into its own ecosystem," he said. "Everybody in the area knows how beautiful it is back there."

A Facebook group for the quarry shows photos of clear blue water that has accumulated in the quarry pit over the years, contrasted with the bright leafy green of overhanging flora. The images paint a picture more reminiscent of a tropical location than the middle of Bucks County.

Asked about impacts to wildlife, the DEP wrote state records show no indication threatened species of turtle or salamanders reside on the property. However, the Heritage Conservancy, a Doylestown Township-based nonprofit, identifies the surrounding area as an ecologically important "Quakertown Swamp Lasting Landscape."

?(There are) a lot of species of concern," said conservancy president Jeffrey Marshall, naming birds, mammals and amphibians among them.

Marshall said he contacted the quarry companies hoping some environmental concerns could be addressed, but that he hadn't heard back. Of particular concern is an annual road crossing program the Conservancy organizes to avoid amphibians being run over by vehicles. Sieg confirmed to this news organization plans call for removal of materials via truck; there is rail access to the site, but no "immediate plans" to use it, he said.

"I had hoped ... to see if we can mitigate the impact that their activities would have," Marshall said, referring to truck traffic. "That they would be good corporate neighbors."

Asked about quality of life and environmental concerns, Sieg said the company will have to follow all state and federal regulations.

"The aggregate industry and the mining industry in general is highly regulated," Sieg said. "When we open a quarry we always expect to be in compliance."

He added that although Pierson is the operator at the site, Hanson "would expect that the truck drivers will use those roads responsibly," and that the company requires vehicles to be in good working conditions, with no leaks.

Mining their own business?

There's a nagging question not sitting well with Gottshall and the Fuhrmeisters: How was Hanson Aggregates able to maintain an active mining permit for 30 years, when neighbors thought the property abandoned?

State mining regulations call for the removal of at least 500 tons of rock annually in order to maintain an active quarry permit. The DEP provided reports dating back to 2000 it says documented such removal. Typically the records show removal took somewhere between 10 and 30 hours of work, performed by one or a few employees.

"This is a fairly small amount of material and work can generally be completed in about a day," Sieg said.

But residents say they rarely saw anyone on the land, and never recall any rock being removed. They also question the annual reports: Four of them showed exactly 500 tons removed, and some years show zero employees having worked.

"It's hard to say, we're not here 20 hours a day," Gottshall said. "But the reports look very questionable."

According to the DEP's Cain, agency staff personally observed removal of rocks several times "during site visits and inspections."

This news organization asked Sieg if Lehigh Hanson could provide any additional documents, such as shipping logs or sales receipts, to further corroborate the DEP reports that 500 tons of rock was removed each year. Sieg did not provide any, but said in an emailed response that rock is sometimes "transferred to another one of our quarries, and other times it is sold to a customer and shipped directly to a job site."

According to state regulations, in order to maintain an active mine, a company must remove the rock for "commercial" purposes.

Asked if moving rock from one quarry property to another, under the same ownership, would constitute a commercial activity, Ryan Hamilton, an environmental attorney with Hamilton Law LLC in Pittsburgh, said he was unsure of any existing case law.

"It may depend on how it was used there or whether it is later sold," Hamilton said.

Asked the same question, Cain said the DEP "still considers this to be commercial use even if the sale occurs from another site."

For now, the Fuhrmeisters say they're waiting to see what actions the township takes with the quarry, before weighing any other options. But Nancy Fuhrmeister, mother of the household, doesn't see much avenue for recourse.

"From everything we've seen so far, we have no rights," she said.

Water risks?

Of additional concern to residents such as Gottshall and the Fuhermeisters is that the quarry's accumulated water might be pumped and discharged into the local environment. In addition to culling fish populations in the quarry, they're concerned about potential damages to area waterways or changes in the aquifer on which their private water wells rely.

State records show Hanson holds a discharge permit for the site, which discharges into an "unnamed tributary" of the Tohickon Creek, which ultimately feeds Lake Nockamixon.

Both the DEP and Hanson Lehigh said there are no current plans to drain the quarry, with Sieg adding the company expects presently exposed rock will provide enough material for the time being, with pumping of the water to reach new rock dependent on continued demand.

"What we see is that pit wouldn't need to be drained for probably several years," Sieg said.

On the Pennsylvania Turnpike's website, the Lansdale-area project has a listed completion date of June 2021. But Sieg said operations at the quarry could extend longer, either as new turnpike contracts come up for bid or other customers come buying.

"The decision to keep that quarry active will depend on the demand for the materials," Sieg said.

If it were to be pumped, Sieg said the company doesn't "anticipate any impacts to wells or drinking water."

Asked about the concern, the DEP pointed to communications with Hanson Aggregates requiring a significant updating of the company's permit file. By the end of February, Hanson is required to update a map of its operations, erosion and sediment control plan, blast plans, and air pollution and noise control plan.

However, the company has six months to update sections pertaining to environmental resources, wetlands, post-mining reclamation and hydrology. The latter section requires a plan to conduct "background sampling and monitoring," which is typically used to provide a baseline for any changes or pollution in nearby water resources.

Hamilton, the environmental attorney, said such information is typically required in advance of a new mining permit being issued. But because Hanson Aggregates' permit has been maintained, they can update as they go.

"It would seem prudent for the DEP to require this information ASAP so that any necessary changes can be put in place before issues arise," Hamilton said.

In an email, the DEP told local residents that companies "that affect a public or private water supply are required to restore or replace that supply." In other words, if they break it, they buy it.

Gottshall wasn't comforted.

"Who wants to live with that worry, really?" he said. "What if?"

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Information from: Bucks County Courier Times, http://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com