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Silenced by the blast: Athens Township residents feel no one is listening

Isabela Weiss/ WVIA News
Report for America
Informational meeting in Athens Township to discuss proposed mining operation.

In the quiet valley bordering the Chemung River, Athens Township residents fight to preserve their native wildlife populations and waterways from a 360-acre mining operation.

“I am from the Bay Area on the West Coast. I served 18 years in the military. I retired in Georgia, lived for a small time in Tennessee. I'm not from here. And yet I chose to come and live here. One time through this town and I see the smiling faces of the brothers that came before me on the light poles all across this town.”

That’s Brian Mounts – he spoke out against the proposed mining plan and a growing number of similar operations at an informational meeting on Monday.

“There's a gravel pit that's a mile and a quarter away from my house just up the river, the Chemung one,” Mounts said. “I don't know if it's from that gravel pit, but routinely, my house is affected by explosions. I don't know…who's doing it. I don't know what it is. It happens at odd times. But it rocks my house. It doesn't just shake, it rocks my house. You want to talk about what happens after that?”

Bishop Brothers, the construction company, plans to conduct frequent blasting operations at the proposed site, just two miles away from Athens Area High School. Several parents and residents raised concerns about their kids’ safety and that of local wildlife populations that surround the construction site. According to Bishop Brothers and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the sound generated by the blasts may reach as high as 133 decibels. For context, the average firework show reaches between 150-175 decibels.

Matt Allen, who owns property by the Chemung River, asked developers to consider how blasting would endanger the Valley’s bald eagle population.

“I thought when I was in Alaska [it] would be...the only time in my life I would see bald eagles. I'm so pleased to see them here, where we live,” said Matt Allen.

He argued that the environmental effects of blasting would negatively impact residents’ – both human and animals’ – quality of life.

“We respectfully ask that you deny the mining permit to keep the eagles’ habitat safe for our valley…for the community to enjoy,” said Matt Allen.

Just after Allen described the families of eagles he sees outside of his home, Dave Goss, a DEP mining inspector, denied the presence of bald eagles in the area.

“Most of the eagle [population] deals with the nesting site. So, the [DEP] regulations require [Bishop Brothers] to do a survey, and no nesting site was in that area,” said Goss.

While Goss and several officials from the DEP asked residents to submit photos of potentially affected wildlife, neither the DEP nor Bishop Brothers addressed that their last survey of the area was conducted two years ago.

Throughout the meeting, residents told Bishop Brothers and the DEP that their concerns were not being addressed. Aside from Township Supervisor Tressa Heffron, no township officials were at the meeting to answer residents’ questions.

One resident, Alice Bennett, exasperated by public officials’ lack of answers for concerned residents, commented on present officials’ avoidance of questions – eliciting laughter from the room.

“I guess from everything I’ve heard prior to me, that nobody here can answer my questions also,” Bennett joked.

Other residents like Deb Allen added that officials had not considered how the geography of Athens Township would amplify the effects of any noise or dust caused by the project.

“We're in a valley, the mountain is right alongside the river. Noise travels down the river, the dust travels. We have such a wind tunnel that runs down the river. Just watching that one blast they showed -- that dust cloud comes up. If there's wind blowing or gusts comes in, it's gonna travel right down the river. There's nothing they're going to be able to do to stop it,” said Deb Allen.

That blast Deb Allen talked about came from a video officials showed residents of what a mining blast might look like.

After one resident questioned the effects of prolonged exposure to dust particles, Jordi Comas, Environmental Justice Coordinator for DEP’s North Central Regional Office, said the DEP cannot ban projects because they might harm the environment.

“If your benchmark [for deciding what projects to allow] is, ‘Anything might cause environmental damage,’ that's true. And if your benchmark is, ‘Nothing should ever be done that would cause environmental damage,’ then we're not going to be able to get anything in our economy. So, it's a balancing act for DEP between what our regulations [are]. Whether they're sufficient or not isn't a question we can answer -- and [regardless] if we would want to. It's a question of whether it's sufficient for this project. It's not [a question of] whether or not it might pollute,” Comas said.

Residents at the meeting were left feeling unheard by the state government – the DEP, unseen by local officials – most of whom were not at the meeting, and disempowered by Bishop Brothers. Brian Mounts, a veteran living in Athens Township, told WVIA News how officials present at Monday’s meeting made him feel small.

“It's funny to listen to them making their snide little comments about all the people -- the little people who live over here. Well, this is our community. Everybody cares. Between the dust, the explosions, the truck traffic, the damage to the roads, the damage to the park,” Mounts said.

Public comment for the proposed Minard Mine ends on Aug. 25. Residents are encouraged to contact the DEP Moshannon District Office about any questions or comments. DEP is reviewing requests for a follow-up hearing.

Isabela Weiss is a storyteller turned reporter from Athens, GA. She is WVIA News's Rural Government Reporter and a Report for America corps member. Weiss lives in Wilkes-Barre with her fabulous cats, Boo and Lorelai.