In Alabama, What Does It Take to Shut Down a Surface Mine Operating Without Permits?

ADDISON, Alabama—When state environmental regulators in June approached the president of Rock Creek Stone, an Alabama-based sandstone quarry along Rock Creek, they were clear that a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit and an air pollution permit, were required for operation, according to state records.

“I reminded Mr. Johnson that he should not be operating without a NPDES Permit and an Air Permit,” a state employee wrote in a report, referring to the quarry’s president, Drew Johnson. “I reiterated that the operation should not have commenced without those permits being issued.”

Less clear was whether Johnson intended to cease operations. “Mr. Johnson said that he didn’t think he could stop operating due to financial issues,” the employee wrote. 

So continued a months-long ordeal in which residents living near the quarry repeatedly complained to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) about environmental violations, only to watch Rock Creek Stone continue to operate without permits.

After a series of warnings and an October consent agreement that included a $50,000 fine, the department now appears set to green-light Rock Creek Stone’s future surface mining operations. 

Environmentalists described the saga as an all-too-common case study in lax environmental enforcement, inadequate fines that neither protect the environment nor deter violators, and a willingness to accept flagrant noncompliance by businesses that enjoy some measure of local support. 

Black Warrior Riverkeeper, an environmental nonprofit, criticized the $50,000 penalty negotiated in this case as “woefully inadequate” in comments submitted to ADEM: “What could be more serious than knowingly and flagrantly operating without the required permits? And telling ADEM personnel that the operation was likely to continue?” 

Complaints Roll In

ADEM began receiving complaints from residents living near Rock Creek Stone in early spring 2023, according to state records.

“I’ve noticed over the past year mining activity next to Rock Creek,” one resident wrote in a complaint to the state regulator. “I live downstream …  and noticed silting activity of the creek as a result of blasting and digging activities of the rock quarry off of Highway 278. The only natural runoff is for dirt and contaminants to go straight into this natural environment.”

In early May 2023, an ADEM staffer inspected the site, noting that multiple acres of land were disturbed and several areas of stockpiled material were visible. 

ADEM continued to receive complaints in the weeks and months that followed. Records show that on June 16, state regulators contacted Johnson over the phone to discuss his permitless operation of the plant, making clear to the company president that operations were not to continue until air and water permits were issued. 

“I explained that our permitting process does not allow for any construction and/or operation of a quarry before being permitted and that by doing so he is in violation,” an employee wrote in a call summary. “Mr. Johnson told me that he has millions of dollars of equipment, was not able to shut down, and that he would have to accept whatever fine came along with the violation.”

Four days later, a second ADEM inspector visited the site, noting that the mine was operational despite the agency’s conversation with Johnson:

“The facility is an unpermitted rock quarry.  The site fuel tanks are single walled, without secondary containment, and show signs of fuel spillage. There are other areas that show signs of oil spillage from heavy equipment. The silt fence that is installed along the entry road is not trenched in. There are air gaps under the fence.” 

It wasn’t until July 25 that ADEM received an application from Rock Creek Stone for its required air permitting. Two days later, ADEM replied with a list of deficiencies in the company’s application. 

Meanwhile, complaints from residents continued to pour into ADEM’s email inbox. 

Calls for Closure

By August, multiple residents had contacted state regulators to request Rock Creek Stone be shut down. 

“We live on Rock Creek not far below the unpermitted rock quarry operation,” one resident wrote. “We have noticed quite a bit more silt, and who knows what other contaminants have been flowing downstream to us from the quarry. For the sake of our health and the tens of millions of dollars invested by homeowners on Rock Creek, please shut down this quarry until all environmental reviews and permitting have been approved by both Winston County and the State of Alabama.”

In September, a resident near the facility called ADEM to complain about a sheen in a waterway near Rock Creek. As a result, two days later, ADEM conducted another inspection and noted several issues at the site, including sediment leaving the site and entering Rock Creek. Silt fences on site “did not appear to be properly implemented and/or maintained,” the inspector wrote. A notice Rock Creek had submitted to ADEM prior to the inspection indicated only four outfalls into state waters, an inspector noted, when there were actually six onsite. 

The Rock Creek Stone plant near Addison, Alabama, appears operational on Dec. 12, just hours before ADEM's public hearing on whether to grant the site required permits. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News
The Rock Creek Stone plant near Addison, Alabama, appears operational on Dec. 12, just hours before ADEM’s public hearing on whether to grant the site required permits. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News

In October, two ADEM staffers contacted representatives of Rock Creek Stone, including Johnson, to discuss emission test results that had been submitted to the agency. The Clean Air Act requires all mineral processors to ensure their equipment meets certain emissions standards. 

ADEM informed Johnson that equipment at the site had failed air emissions tests and “discussed expected enforcement as a result of the failures,” a record of the call said. 

In a written response, Johnson told ADEM that the cause of the excess emissions was due to the equipment not being in operation for some time prior to testing. In the future, Johnson wrote, “we will comply with ADEM’s performance testing.”

Rock Creek Fined

On Oct. 11, ADEM issued a consent order in which the agency outlined Rock Creek Stone’s operation without required permits. 

“Rock Creek did not exhibit a standard of care consistent with the requirements of the ADEM administrative code,” the order said. “In addition, Rock Creek continued to operate after being notified of ADEM requirements. The Department notes that these violations were easily avoidable by obtaining the appropriate permits prior to operation.”

The department concluded that Rock Creek Stone had economically benefited from its operation and wrote that it was “unaware of any efforts to minimize or mitigate the effects upon the environment due to its noncompliance.”

As part of the consent order, the company agreed to pay the assessed $50,000 penalty but did not admit guilt. 

“Rock Creek neither admits nor denies the Department’s contentions,” the order stated. 

Black Warrior Riverkeeper, the environmental nonprofit that called the $50,000 penalty “woefully inadequate,” also said in comments to ADEM that the department needed to take more seriously its responsibility to penalize polluters in a way that actually encourages future compliance. 

“Time and again, we see permittees choose noncompliance because ADEM is unlikely to capture the economic benefit that a violator realizes,” Black Warrior Riverkeeper wrote. “ADEM should hold Rock Creek accountable by stripping away such profits.”

The nonprofit also questioned the lack of any additional penalty related to past violations, given ADEM’s documented issues with compliance at the facility. 

“For instance, while the Order cites Rock Creek for operating without an NPDES permit, there is no accounting for the fact that ADEM documented the facility illegally discharging wastewater to a water of the state without a permit,” the comment said.

ADEM Set to Approve Permits

Despite Rock Creek Stone’s record with state regulators, ADEM has announced its intention to greenlight the company’s future operations by providing the necessary permits for operation. 

“ADEM has determined that the equipment/operations in the applications submitted by the company should be able to meet State and federal air pollution control requirements,” an ADEM public notice posted Nov. 3 said in part. 

ADEM staffers also decided that “enhanced” community notification of the proposed permit issuance wasn’t appropriate. 

“Due to the low emissions expected from the operations at the proposed facility, it was determined that enhanced outreach is not necessary,” an ADEM staffer wrote in a document recommending the permit issuance. 

Staffers from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management run a public hearing in Addison. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News
Staffers from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management run a public hearing in Addison. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News

At a public hearing ADEM held regarding the permits in Addison earlier this month, the limited testimony before regulatory officials focused on jobs. 

A few dozen people, almost entirely employees of Rock Creek Stone and their families, took their seats in the bleachers of the local school gymnasium. 

Johnson spoke briefly, his soft voice difficult to hear even with a microphone. 

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” he said. “There’s no way I plan on doing anything that’s going to damage anything in our lake.” 

Johnson’s representative then spoke, outlining a PowerPoint presentation that wasn’t visible from the audience. 

“The big thing is ‘Who is Rock Creek?’” he said. “Rock Creek are folk that love this community. They’re folks that you see in grocery stores and convenience stores. They’re folks that you worship with at your church, folks you see at a Friday night football game. They have no desire to harm the environment around you.”

The Rock Creek representative said that by applying for the required permits, the company was “inviting scrutiny.”

“Being permitted, obviously what Rock Creek is doing is inviting scrutiny,” he said. “They’re inviting ADEM to come and inspect.”

“We’re a Poor County”

After the lawyer’s presentation, ADEM officials asked any public officials present to speak. One, Winston County Commissioner Rutger Hyche, came to the microphone and began by praising Rock Creek Stone for bringing jobs to the community. 

“I would like for the camera to follow me around here,” Hyche said. “If you work for Rock Creek Stone, please stand up.” 

Nearly the whole audience stood. 

“That’s a lot of eyes and ears that’s going to be in that quarry looking to see if there are any violations or anything,” Hyche said. “That’s also a lot of people working to put bread and food on their families’ tables, and that means a lot to us in Winston County. We’re a poor county.” 

After Hyche concluded, only one member of the public chose to address ADEM regulators during the meeting—Johnson’s former realtor, who expressed support for Rock Creek. 

ADEM officials called for a brief break and most of those in the audience left the gym. After the break, officials dismissed the hearing without further public input. 

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What Comes Next

Stephen Morros with the Smith Lake Environmental Preservation Committee said later in an interview that any potential pollution in Smith Lake or its connecting waterways is worrisome. And the flagrancy exhibited by Rock Creek Stone, Morros said, is also a significant worry. 

“It’s very concerning to us,” he said. “We are concerned that if they’re not doing things by the book now, what are they going to do later?”

ADEM’s public notice regarding Rock Creek’s proposed permits indicate that the agency will take final action soon on whether the company’s operations will be allowed to move forward legally. 

Members of the public who have concerns about air or water conditions in Alabama can file complaints with ADEM at this link. 

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                <h4 class="profile-subtitle">Alabama Reporter</h4>

                Lee Hedgepeth is Inside Climate News’ Alabama reporter. Raised in Grand Bay, Alabama, a small town on the Gulf Coast, Lee holds master’s degrees in community journalism and political development from the University of Alabama and Tulane University. Lee is the founder of Tread, a newsletter of Southern journalism, and has also worked for news outlets across Alabama, including CBS 42, Alabama Political Reporter and the Anniston Star. His reporting has focused on issues impacting members of marginalized groups, including homelessness, poverty, and the death penalty. His award-winning journalism has appeared in publications across the country and has been cited by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, among others.

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