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Rock quarries not safe guarded
Apr 07, 2005 12:00 am
Rock quarries – familiar landmarks throughout Wilson County for decades – are basically unregulated by the city and county with the exception of zoning ordinances, officials say.
The area's massive, manmade craters – some of which reportedly reach depths of 500 feet or more – have been an ongoing problem for years for local authorities, who have fished murder victims, stolen cars and even a bank safe from the murky depths of local rock quarries.
Less than two weeks ago, a rock quarry identified as one of the area's oldest, located along Bluebird Road, claimed the life of a 13-year-old when he slipped and drowned despite the efforts of his best friend to rescue him.
City and city officials were quick to admit the quarries which dot the area are a danger and no local safety regulations exist to govern them.
"We've had to rescue everything from kids to cows," Lebanon Public Safety Commissioner Billy Weeks said of a massive quarry which has existed in the heart of West Lebanon for decades.
Weeks said he was unaware of any city ordinances requiring fencing or other safety measures at rock quarry sites.
"I'm not aware of anything that addresses it," Weeks said, though he pointed out the growth of the city has encompassed one rock quarry site – at Highway 109 – which was once beyond the city limits.
"The city limits just absorbed that one," he said. "Some of them, when they first dug them, they probably felt like they were far enough outside of town it wouldn't ever become an issue, but the way things have grown has caused that to change."
County Attorney Mike Jennings said the only county ordinances touching on rock quarries are zoning measures requiring they be created in areas zoned for industrial use only.
But many of the quarries beyond Lebanon's city limits were in existence well before county zoning measures were enacted, meaning they were "grandfathered in," Jennings said.
As for any county regulations regarding safety at quarry sites Jennings said, "Offhand, I don't know that any exist in the county" but indicated that could soon change.
He said he has been requested by a county commissioner to research the issue since the March 24 drowning death at the Bluebird Road quarry.
"I suspect that probably prompted it," Jennings said of the teen's tragic drowning death. "This particular commissioner didn't tell me that, but I have a strong feeling it had something to do with it."
Like Weeks, Jennings noted in some court cases private swimming pools become known as an "attractive nuisance," a legal definition that can lead to a judge requiring fencing and gates.
Yet quarries – many, many times larger and deeper than even the most expansive swimming pool – apparently require no such safety measures, both officials said.
"I've just never seen much on rock quarries anywhere in state law – period," Jennings remarked.
Two primary reasons explain the abundance of rock quarries in the area, noted Road Superintendent Steve Armistead, the first being the county's abundance of rock itself.
"We've got plenty of rock, that's what it boils down to," the road chief said.
But he explained the construction of Interstate 40 in the 1960s – and less stringent regulations in existence at the time – allowed many road builders to dig for rock and leave nothing but the massive holes in their wake.
Since then, he said, at least one federal law has been passed requiring rock quarries be filled in "at least until they reach a certain grade" but it contains a major loophole.
"The way the law reads it says when you're finished with it you have to fill it in to a certain grade," Armistead said. "But the thing is, you never really finish with it. You can always say you're going to pull more rock out of there."
Jennings would not predict whether his research into the issue could lead to a county safety ordinance requiring fencing or some type of barrier at quarry sites.
"I really don't know what, if anything at all, will come out of it," he said. "I've just been asked to research it, and I've just started looking into it."
A sheriff's department official said nearly two weeks after the teen's drowning death, authorities have not yet determined who owns the quarry site on Bluebird Road.
But Armistead identified it as one of the county's oldest known rock quarries.
"I'm 57 years old, and I can remember going to water races they used to have for coonhounds out there when I was about 10, so it's been there at least that long," he said.
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.