There is one topic dominating local talk in the Pennridge region this winter, and it is not the upcoming presidential election. The fight over an old quarry containing naturally occurring asbestos is the talk of our region, and its 45,000 residents.
Mention the name “Rockhill Quarry” in East Rockhill Township at the grocery store, your church, a local restaurant, or on social media, and you will surely get a response. And the Rockhill Quarry is indeed old. The Perkasie Central News archives show granite was discovered there in 1888. By 1890, early quarry operators were “getting out blocks for building purposes and road paving,” at a time when few roads were paved. The General Crushed Stone Company began operations there in 1903, providing materials for “macadamizing, cement work and building purposes.”
In 2017, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission awarded a turnpike construction contract to R.E. Pierson, which in turn operates the quarry owned by Hanson Aggregates. Since then, a legal battle ensued over the Rockhill Quarry’s ability to operate, which includes the legal rights of the quarry’s owners to run their business. That battle continues today in the courts.
To be sure, much of that opposition is part of a natural “Not in My Backyard” response from residents who never had to live next to a fully operational quarry. However, that probably will not decide the quarry’s fate. Instead, the presence of naturally occurring asbestos and how much of it is at the quarry seems to be one issue that could close the quarry permanently.
Last week, U.S. House Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican, and state Sen. Steve Santarsiero, a Democrat, appeared at a joint press conference and demanded its permanent closure. Fitzpatrick was frank in his assessment of the situation. “”I will tell you I’ve been very, very disappointed in the response, in the demeanor, the attitude where they feel that they have the finances, they feel they have the law on their side and they’re just gonna do what they want to do without any consideration for the neighbors, for the kids in this neighborhood,” Fitzpatrick said.
Quarry owners Hanson Aggregates Pennsylvania disputed the gist of Fitzpatrick’s statement. “Again, it is important to note that the detectable presence of naturally occurring asbestos in the stone at Rockhill Quarry should not be equated to risk. There are no indications of unsafe levels of asbestos in the air, and no indications that employees or the surrounding community have been or are currently at risk due to the quarry,” said spokesman Jeff Sieg in a statement last week. Hanson also says the elected representatives haven’t met with them to discuss the issue, despite Hanson’s requests.
On Thursday, the Doylestown Intelligencer also called for the quarry’s closure. And last week, the three Bucks County Commissioners (two Democrats and one Republican,) called for the quarry’s permanent closure in a statement.
Clearly, there is bipartisan political support and much public opinion against the quarry, with Hanson arguing for due process at a state level before a permanent decision is made. But that due process is not in the courts for the asbestos issue, but lies with two appointed officials. Specifically, the county commissioners asked Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine and Secretary of Environmental Protection Patrick McDonnell “to use the powers of your offices to permanently close the operations” at the quarry.
I am not a geologist or an environmental scientist, but I do encourage the public to go the state Department of Environmental Protection’s special web page about the Rockhill Quarry and read the public record of correspondence on the issue.
For now, the temporary ban on activities at the quarry should remain in place. Personally, as someone who lost their grandfather to asbestos exposure in the 1960s, before the hazards were fully recognized, I think any amount of asbestos at the quarry should warrant the cessation of all activities at the site. But we need to let the process at the Department of Environmental Protection play out, and that includes due process for the quarry owner. The process includes a review of resubmitted sample analyses and geological reports.
That said, unless there is overwhelming evidence the quarry does not pose a public health danger, it can’t remain open.
Until we get more answers, the Turnpike project can wait.
Scott Bomboy represents Ward 3 on Perkasie Borough Council, and is the chair of its Public Safety and Historical committees.