hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues June 2019


Vermont weighs rules for slate quarries

Industry warns of costs and job losses, but critics see need for oversight



Tom Beebe hammers a large piece of slate so that it will be able to fit onto the processing belt at the Sheldon Slate Products facility in Poultney. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


A legislative battle is brewing over whether and how Vermont should regulate the slate quarries that have dominated the economy and landscape of western Rutland County for generations.
The conflict has come into focus over the past year as a legislative commission started crafting revisions to Act 250, the nearly 50-year-old law that governs land use and development throughout Vermont. In January, the commission recommended that slate quarries and their operators, who for decades have been mainly exempt from the law’s requirements, should be brought under its jurisdiction.

That would mean new costs and permitting requirements for the industry, and quarry operators and many elected officials from Rutland County have been speaking out against the proposal in recent months. They warn that about 300 local jobs and millions of dollars in economic activity are at stake.

Craig Markcrow, the owner of Vermont Structural Slate Co. in Fair Haven, urged lawmakers at a hearing in March to avoid regulations that will make it harder for the industry to thrive.
“We believe these changes in Act 250 are unnecessary and will place heavy burdens on the slate industry,” Markcrow told the state House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife at its March 19 hearing. “Slate quarries are valuable, legacy assets to all Vermonters. Why enact legislation that will make them far less likely to be viable?”

But critics point to rogue behavior on the part of some quarry operators, and legislators have heard testimony from quarry neighbors who say their lives have been upended when long-dormant slate pits were suddenly reactivated. These homeowners cite truck traffic, dust, noise and blasting that they say has devalued their properties and in some cases damaged their water supplies.

Some legislators and state officials also say it makes no sense to give one industry a free pass from rules that apply to virtually every other large-scale development and land use in Vermont.
William Burke, the coordinator of the District 1 Environmental Commission, which oversees the administration of Act 250 in Rutland County, urged legislators at the March hearing to do away with the slate industry’s exemption.

“This exemption is unique to slate quarries,” Burke said “All other extractive industries in Vermont are subject to the ordinary rules of Act 250 jurisdiction.”

Exempting the slate industry from those rules, he said, “is bad for the environment, bad for impacted citizens, and therefore bad public policy.”

A history built with slate
Slate is a fine-grained stone valued for its resistance to water and weathering and its ability to be split into thin straight slabs. Unlike granite and marble, it doesn’t absorb stains, and its durability has made it a prized material for roofing, flooring, kitchen and bathroom surfaces, building cladding, and monuments.

Slate is rare in comparison to other building stones, and commercial-quality deposits in the United States are found only in a few places in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont and Maine. The Slate Valley, a narrow geologic structure that runs along the western edge of Rutland County and into Washington County, N.Y., is renowned for its high-quality slate in a large variety of colors -- more than at any other site in the world.

Slate deposits around Granville, N.Y., yield the world’s only red slate. The Vermont slate is mostly green, gray or purple.

In Vermont, the slate belt is about 1.5 miles wide by 12 miles long, confined almost entirely to the southwestern corner of Rutland County.

“We wouldn’t anticipate new resources,” Vermont State Geologist Marjorie Gale said. “That’s been mapped in detail.”

Commercial quarrying in the Slate Valley started in the 1850s and attracted thousands of skilled and unskilled immigrant workers to the region. Some families in the area now have worked in the industry for five generations.

The local slate industry employed an estimated 5,000 workers in the 1920s, before the introduction of asphalt roofing, Markcrow said in an interview. But today the industry must compete with cheaper foreign slate and imitation products, and demand for local slate is steady or decreasing.

The Slate Valley Museum in Granville lists 22 slate producers in the area. Producers generally own both quarries and processing facilities, called mills, where raw stone is cut and split.
Some very small companies may have only two workers and produce only roofing or landscape stone.

Larger operations, such as Sheldon Slate Products Co. Inc. in Middle Granville, N.Y., make a wide range of products, and because the slate deposit crosses state lines, operators may own quarries and facilities in both states and even beyond.

Beverly Tatko said she and her husband, John Tatko Jr., who own Sheldon Slate, own a slate mine and mill in Maine in addition to their New York and Vermont properties.

Markcrow’s Vermont Structural Slate has 36 employees, 61 quarries and three mills in New York, Vermont and Virginia.

Almost all of the local slate is sold outside the area. Material from the Slate Valley has gone to projects across the United States and to Europe, South America and Australia.


Separate rules for slate
Vermont adopted Act 250 in 1970 in response to a wave of development in the 1960s. The law’s stated purpose is to promote economic development while preserving the state’s rural character and natural resources.

Under Act 250, proposed developments must show how they will meet 10 criteria that affect the environment and existing development. The law, which specifically covers extractive industries, allows for hearings at which neighbors who could be affected by a project have the opportunity to raise objections and ask for modifications or restrictions to a permit.

But that could get complicated quickly for the slate industry, given that perhaps 400 slate pits have been excavated over the years in Rutland County. Unlike marble and granite quarries, which can be very large, slate pits may be very small.

“Different quarries have different colors,” Tatko said. “It’s driven by demand.”
So if a certain color comes into fashion or is required for a special project, slate quarry operators may open a pit that hasn’t been worked in decades.

By the early 1990s, disputes were arising over whether particular pits were old enough to be exempt from regulation or should be considered new pits requiring permits. Many quarry operators lacked records that could prove the age of a slate pit.

At the urging of quarry operators and Rutland County’s statehouse delegation, the Legislature reviewed the situation and passed Act 30 in 1995. Under that measure, quarry owners were required to register both active and inactive quarries that had yielded slate before 1970.
Burke, the district Environmental Commission coordinator, issued opinions on 300 to 400 pits, up to seven on one parcel. Now, any quarry registered as having existed before 1970, no matter how long it has been dormant, can be reopened at any time without Act 250 review.
Markcrow noted that the exemption covers only the quarry, not the land. A change in use, such as building a mill or other facility on the property, or opening a new pit, would require an Act 250 permit.


Revamping a law
Act 250 has proved controversial. Supporters say it’s been crucial to protecting Vermont’s environmental quality and scenic beauty. Detractors say its requirements, which can be expensive and time-consuming, prevent Vermont businesses from expanding and discourage other businesses from moving to the state.

Two years ago, the Legislature established a bipartisan commission of three state senators and three state representatives to propose updates to Act 250. The panel issued its recommendations in January.

Among other issues, the commission reviewed the quarry exemption, taking into consideration complaints from quarry neighbors who said they had been harmed by activities at slate businesses.

The commission recommended:
• repealing Act 30 and imposing other requirements in its place;
• requiring quarry operators to submit a record of how much stone is being removed from the quarries;
• making quarry owners responsible for letting adjacent landowners know about a registered quarry; and
• adding quarry data to an atlas maintained by the state Agency of Natural Resources.
Quarry owners, coming together as the Green Mountain Slate Quarry Association, immediately objected to the first three of these proposals.

“Forcing registered quarries to get Act 250 permits would make quarries practically valueless to the industry,” Markcrow said at the March 19 hearing. He warned that slate companies could close, driving jobs, businesses and young people away from an area that has few other industries and is already struggling because of the closing of Green Mountain College.

Slate quarry owners pointed out that the state’s marble and granite quarries are much larger companies with deep pockets. For example, OMYA, which processes marble for industrial uses, is a Swiss conglomerate with operations in more than 50 countries, while Rock of Ages is owned by a Quebec firm. The Vermont Danby Quarry, which produces marble, has Italian ownership.
“In the mid-‘90s we were able to demonstrate that slate quarries are a lot like small farms,” Markcrow said. “We don’t have resources. Dormant quarries aren’t abandoned. It would be onerous to have to go through Act 250 each time we wanted to reopen a quarry.”


The surprise next door
Quarry owners say those who want to end the exemption are mainly people who’ve moved into Rutland County from outside the area -- or who failed to do their research before buying a house that was cheap because it was near a quarry. Although quarry operations include blasting and truck traffic, industry officials say quarry operators are responsible and that most people who live near quarries aren’t bothered by those activities.

That wasn’t Kristin Silverman’s experience.

Silverman, who submitted a statement at the March legislative hearing, grew up in the Slate Valley and went to school with quarry families at Granville Central School. She was well acquainted with the industry and what it entailed.

In 2008, she and her husband, Jeff, found a house in Poultney. There was an old quarry next door, but the real estate agent assured them that it would never reopen. Silverman knew the landowners, the Taran family, and checked with them.

“They said it was dried up and there was really nothing there,” Silverman said.
There was no discount on the price because of the quarry, she added. The Silvermans bought the house and moved in with their two sons.

They were shocked when, in the spring of 2017, workers started reopening the quarry. It turned out that the Tarans owned only the surface of the land -- the mineral rights belonged to someone else, a company with “a new owner who started working all the pits,” Silverman said.

“It was utter chaos when they were actively drilling and blasting,” she said. The company worked seven days a week, starting as early as 5:30 a.m.

Silverman said there was almost no warning of blasting, and rocks rained down on the road and her family’s yard. Their foundation started to crack, and the water from their well turned turbid, destroying the filters they’d installed.

At one point, the Silvermans moved in with her mother because their well water had become unusable.

Silverman said she tried to contact the quarry owner, whom she described as an old friend from high school, but got nowhere. She talked to other quarry owners who told her they wouldn’t run their operations like that and that, if the slate were that valuable, “they’d sell some equipment and buy the homeowner out,” she said.


Feeling powerless
The Silvermans also complained to the town. Poultney has zoning and some other ordinances to protect homeowners, and it was able to force the quarry operators to turn off the noisy pumps at the bottom of the pit at night. But the town didn’t have the resources to do much more, Silverman said, and other local officials weren’t helpful.

“You pay taxes, but you’re just kind of powerless” against the quarry owners, she said.
In January 2018, the Silvermans put together funds from a family bequest, savings for a vacation, and loans from relatives, hired a lawyer, and sued the quarry owners.
“We dumped everything we had into getting a lawyer, just to get our rights in Poultney,” Silverman said.

She said they hoped that the quarry owner would buy them out, but they eventually settled for an undisclosed sum and a 200-foot easement around their home. The settlement wasn’t enough to cover damage to their home, and the Silvermans feared they would be forced into foreclosure or would have to sell their home for much less than they’d paid to buy it.

But about a year and a half after the quarry resumed operation, the operator left it. The Silvermans repaired their house’s foundation, and the well gradually returned to normal. Unlike some people whose wells have been damaged by blasting at quarries, “we didn’t have to drill a new well,” Silverman said.

They had the house on the market for a while but took it off.
“We may stay now because the kids like the area,” she said.


Protecting neighbors
Quarry owners say their operations already are highly regulated.
“We’re inspected all the time,” Tatko said. State regulators check for water use and air and water quality protection, and federal inspectors cover safe handling of explosives and worker safety and health, among other concerns, she explained.

But in Vermont, no agency is tasked with protecting the interests of neighboring landowners.
Tatko said most quarry owners are responsible.

“We don’t just blow up our quarries for the fun of it,” she said.
She described with pride how the Tatkos’ precision blasting allows them to fabricate 11-foot countertops, each from a single piece of slate.

“We’ve never caused anybody any trouble,” Tatko said. “That’s why we carry insurance.”
Quarry owners are highly independent, and owners run their quarries their own way. For the few who don’t play by the rules, the Green Mountain Slate Quarry Association suggests that aggrieved neighbors can seek help from the courts.

But as the Silvermans can attest, that avenue is expensive.

“If you buy a home near a quarry, you probably don’t have a lot of money for lawyers,” Silverman noted wryly.

New York has its own regulations for permitting mines and quarries. Those regulations are nowhere near as stringent as Vermont’s Act 250, and at the moment, few, if any, slate quarries are operating on the New York side of the state line.

Town officials from Castleton, Fair Haven, Pawlet, Poultney and Wells have sent letters to the Legislature in support of keeping the industry’s exemption from Act 250. They cite the importance of the slate industry to their economies, the quarry owners’ assistance in maintaining town roads and buildings, their civic engagement, and the desirability of maintaining an industry with a long local history.

A possible route toward compromise emerged in April when state Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-East Middlebury, the chairwoman of the Act 250 review commission, called for a series of stakeholder meetings, facilitated by the District 1 Environmental Commission, at which slate quarry operators, adjacent landowners and town officials would come together and develop individualized plans to set limits for hours of operation, traffic and blasting, and to create notice requirements. Quarry operators that agreed to such a plan could become eligible for an expedited Act 250 permit, giving landowners some protection and quarry operators a predictable path, she suggested.
Silverman acknowledged that noise, blasting, and waste rock piles “are part of life” for people living near slate quarries.

“But there has to be a medium,” she said. “It’s an industry just like marble and granite, and yet they play by different rules.”