Whenever there’s a big blast at the Wake Stone quarry, the windows of Tamara Dunn’s Old Reedy Creek home rattle. She can feel the vibrations. Outside, her six two-hundred-pound Irish wolfhounds begin to bark frantically.
The quarry is a mile away. Soon, there could be another quarry even closer.
“I can feel it in the floor,” Dunn says. “I have no idea what that is going to be like when they are right next door.”
Dunn’s home is adjacent to what’s known as the Odd Fellows tract, a densely wooded area outside Umstead State Park that the airport owns. On March 1, the RDU Airport Authority Board of Directors voted to lease the land to Wake Stone Co. to build a second quarry in exchange for up to $24 million in royalties. The following Monday, construction crews arrived outside of Dunn’s yard to build a winding road to the site so the company could begin exploratory drilling to look for granite, the primary stone used in local building and road construction.
The Dunn family, along with the Umstead Coalition and Triangle Off-Road Cyclists, went to court, seeking an injunction against the authority and Wake Stone to halt tree cutting or construction on the land. The conservation groups believe the quarry will destroy the land and eliminate its potential for recreational uses, including a trail system for hikers and mountain bikers. A judge granted a temporary injunction last week pending a hearing. But that won’t stop the exploratory drilling, says Jean Spooner of the Umstead Coalition.
A central question is whether the four local governments that co-own the airport authority—Raleigh, Durham, and Wake and Durham Counties—have to sign off for the project to move forward. The RDU authority says they don’t. The project’s critics hope they do, as that may be their best chance to stop the quarry from moving forward.
On Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration told the INDY it was “reviewing the matter and [hasn’t] made a determination if any action is required.” Raleigh, which also requested clarification on its role in the lease agreement, hasn’t received any answers either, according to city attorney Robin Tatum Currin.
RDU officials could not be reached for comment.
Several members of the Raleigh City Council have attempted to halt the lease, with David Cox and Stef Mendell urging the council to send a letter asking the airport authority to reconsider its decision. But the board deadlocked—with Mayor Nancy McFarlane and council members Nicole Stewart, Corey Branch, and Dickie Thompson siding with the city attorney’s view that the council does not have jurisdiction over the matter—and the motion died.
Thompson, who is on the RDU board, says he supports the project because it would give much-needed revenue to RDU, which is struggling to keep up with growth.
Ridership at RDU has increased 42 percent since 2010, with nearly thirteen million passengers passing through its gates in 2018. The money from the quarry deal, Thompson says, is necessary to build a new runway. And it’s a good deal, he says—$24 million is on the low end of revenue projections.
The project’s critics point out that Thompson has received $4,000 in campaign donations from RDU executives—Thompson notes that he’s also received donations from Spooner—and that his construction company, JM Thompson, regularly purchases material from Wake Stone. Thompson denies that the company cuts him any deals.
“If you wanted to buy the stone, you’d get the same price I’d get,” he says.
In an email, an RDU spokeswoman says that “being a customer of an entity would not constitute a conflict of interest.”
Earlier this month, at a council meeting during which dozens in the crowd held up signs asking to “Save RDU Forest” and “Stop RDU Quarry,” Thompson said the quarry’s opposition was built on misinformation.
“This hundred-and-five-acre tract of land in the lease to Wake Stone Company has never been parkland,” he said. “RDU is an airport, not a park. Some people may think it’s a park because they have chosen to use RDU land for recreational purposes illegally. Save RDU Forest—this is purely a fictitious name. There is not an RDU Forest on any legislative map.”
The issue has turned into a political football as Raleigh’s campaign season heats up. (Thompson hasn’t announced whether he’ll seek reelection.) After the council’s vote, David Cox tagged Nicole Stewart’s employer, North Carolina Conservation Network, in a series of tweets denouncing the council’s inaction.
Stewart says the tweets felt like “a direct attack.”
“He is threatening my employment or trying to directly threaten my employment,” Stewart says. “If it wasn’t already clear that this was just political, I think a tweet going after my employer shows just how political it was.“
Cox says he didn’t know who her employer was.
The Wake County Board of Commissioners has yet to weigh in. Commissioner Sig Hutchinson says he supports the project as a way to secure funding for recreation in the area. Under the deal, Wake Stone will pay $3.6 million toward a potential mountain biking lease on a site known as the 286 parcel, on the other side of Old Reedy Creek from the Odd Fellows tract, and another $3 million to reclaim the quarry site for recreation after it finishes mining.
But Commissioner Jessica Holmes, who chairs the board, says that if the FAA determines that the county has jurisdiction, she’ll oppose the deal.
Conservationists say there are other options to fund infrastructure improvements at the airport. The Conservation Fund offered to purchase the Odd Fellows tract for $6.5 million in 2017, they point out, but was turned down. Spooner argues the lease agreement with Wake Stone only ensures that the airport will receive $8.5 million.
No one disputes that quarries are less than ideal. But for RDU, the calculation is clear: The money justifies the environmental sin. The lease’s critics, however, say the risk far outweighs the reward.
“It’s a one-time use,” Dunn says. “I think it’s kind of a quick and easy fix. If you put a big hole there, you permanently damage that property. You can never do anything else with it.”