LEWISTON – Vast stretches of farmland along Ridge Road that used to be apple orchards are now acres of barren holes in the ground.
The dense soil in the area, rich with clay, is being mined and sold off to feed another bane of existence in the area – landfills in Lewiston, Porter and Niagara Falls. These landfills depend on the clay, which is used as both as a base and as caps for the dumps.
And as long as there is a demand, clay mining remains a multimillion-dollar business in Lewiston with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, not the town, issuing the permits and making the rules.
Ridge Road resident Michael Drahms said you can “taste the dust” that coats his family’s house and his children’s playset as two-ton dump trucks go by, sometimes one every 30 seconds.
“It used to be an orchard when I moved here, but they don’t farm it anymore,” Drahms said of the gaping hole that is visible from his backyard. He said if he knew then what he knows now, he never would have bought his house, adding, “I never could have imagined.”
Ronald Catchpole sees trucks speeding past his house on Route 429 and fears an accident could kill someone, but adds, “It’s more than just speeding trucks ... it’s about the environment.”
The clay is used to address a longstanding environmental challenge in Niagara County – what to do with its numerous landfills and hazardous waste dumps. But remediating those sites has created new environmental problems and fresh headaches for public officials as neighbors have spoken out at public meetings.
In Lewiston there are several clay pits, some inactive and some being actively mined, including more than 70 acres on Pletcher Road in the Model City area of Lewiston, where Modern Landfill and Chemical Waste Management are located.
But two sites have come under scrutiny for swallowing up prime farm land behind residential properties in the 2000 block of Ridge Road – and many people are unaware that they even exist.
The Mawhiney mine, which is inactive this summer, has been excavated for seven years, and the Tug Hill mine began operations this summer. Together they are excavating nearly 80 acres in that one area of Lewiston. Brush and trees make the digging and deep holes nearly invisible to passersby.
Hidden but not secret
Thomas Santarsiero, regional manager for Tug Hill Environmental, a construction and environmental remediation company located in Buffalo, said his company is not trying to be secret. The operation is hiding behind the bushes on purpose.
“It’s one less thing that people have to look at. Nobody wants to look at a clay-mining operation,” he said. “We are trying to keep the vegetation as long as we can and keep the dust and keep the noise down, keep whatever nuisances down as long as we can. Landfills are a necessity for a population. There is garbage that has to go somewhere and to make these safe, you need soil material to make these facilities.
He concedes it is an inconvenience to neighbors.
“They’ve lived here. They own their own homes,” he said. “Ridge Road is a busy road to begin with, but the only way to get the material out of here is through trucks and that is the one factor that is the hardest to control as far as noise and dust because it is going right by their house.”
It’s no secret that truck traffic, which is already a concern to residents in the corridor, has increased due to mining and residents have complained about noise, dust and speeding trucks. Several residents, as well as Town Supervisor Dennis J. Brochey, said that when they have tried to take pictures of problem trucks and the clouds of dust, drivers responded with rude gestures.
Truckers under fire
Lewiston Police Sgt. Frank Previte said police have tried to slow down the trucks without success.
“As soon as we ticket one, they all get on their radios and warn the others,” Previte said at a recent Town Board meeting.
“There’s not much we can do about it now,” Brochey said of the existing mines. “We just want them to be good neighbors.”
Both Santarsiero and Patrick Berrigan, an attorney for Mawhiney Trucking, said their drivers have been following the rules. Each noted that a number of contractors also work for them and, in fact, Mawhiney Trucking, based in Wilson, continues to haul for the Tug Hill Mine and also sold its clay to Tug Hill to distribute when it was mining its own Ridge Road site.
Santarsiero said any driver who works for Tug Hill would be fired if he was aware they were acting in a harassing manner.
Berrigan said none of the drivers who work for Mawhiney Trucking has ever been ticketed for speeding and he said owner Roger Mawhiney have been getting an unfair black eye in the press.
“It’s terribly frustrating. He’s done everything he’s been advised to do,” Berrigan said.
Excavation on Ridge Road goes back a number of years to when small irrigation ponds were allowed for farming. At that time, the town would exempt these ponds from its zoning rules, but they have now become prime mining sites.
The Town of Lewiston notes its concerns in its updated master plan, noting that clay soil represents an opportunity, but warning it should be controlled: “Agriculture remains an important economic element in the town and development should be discouraged on prime agricultural lands,” the plan states.
Tim Masters, the town’s building inspector, said the town put more teeth into its law in 2012, but in the meantime the DEC permitted “irrigation ponds” that already had been approved by the town to be expanded for mining clay.
In 2006 Mawhiney Trucking petitioned the DEC to remove 1.2 million cubic yards of clay on 52 acres by expanding a 20-acre irrigation pond by 32 acres at 2752 Ridge Road.
Then-Town Attorney Joseph Leone Jr., in a lawsuit to stop the excavation expansion, said the irrigation pond was meant to irrigate farmland, which is no longer there.
The town tried to fight it, but the state DEC, acting as lead agency, allowed the clay excavation to begin. After a seven-year battle, the town was ordered to issue a permit to Mawhiney. The relationship between both sides remains acrimonious with continued disputes over wording of the permit and permit fees.
The town never accepted a permit fee from Mawhiney during the legal battle, though Berrigan said the firm tried to pay twice and no one cashed the check. After the town was ordered by the court to issue a permit, Masters told the board the original permit fee of $15,200 should have been compounded over the last seven years and should include renewal fees, which Berrigan called ridiculous since Mawhiney can’t be ordered to pay to renew something it never received.
Masters also said the 2015 permit should list the amount to be excavated as the original 1.2 million cubic yards, not 100,000 cubic yards, which Berrigan said is the amount that is left to be removed.
Town Attorney Mark Davis recently told the board it must issue a permit to comply with the court order.
“We are not outside code compliance. We have complied with the code, the state law and have made every effort to comply with the town law,” Berrigan said.
Town vs. the state
When Tug Hill Environmental appeared on the scene in 2013, the town hoped to put its new codes into action to stop another clay mine at 2666 Ridge Road. But the writing appeared to be on the wall as it faced a state-approved mining rights issue again.
Tug Hill bought the property from owner Michael Bergey with the 2004 rights to clay mine from the DEC attached. Rather than go through a lengthy legal battle, the Town Board approved a memorandum of understanding in 2014 and Tug Hill began mining this summer. Tug Hill paid a $20,000 permit fee and was officially given a town permit on July 13.
In 2004, when Bergey first received a permit from the DEC to both mine clay and build a recreational lake at 2666 Ridge Road, the town fought it.
Leone said Bergey was given permission to subdivide his land by the town Planning Board, but said he did not plan to mine clay.
Bergey told the board in 2004 his 70-acre project is “much more than clay mining” and said he planned on creating a 27-acre lake to breed fish. He told the board he also wanted to build a house on the property.
“What can you litigate? I’ve only cut down some bushes,” he said in 2004.
His 30-acre fish hatchery was approved in a 3-2 vote by the board in 2005, along with permission sell the mined clay for profit during construction. Former Supervisor Fred Newlin and then-Councilman John Ceretto voted against it.
In July 2006, Bergey complained about his neighbor on Ridge Road – Mawhiney Trucking’s plan to expand an agricultural pond to 52 acres.
“He’s removing clay. He’s got a weigh scale,” Bergey said at the time. Bergey said he, on the other hand, had been working with an aquatic veterinarian for four years to develop a plan for his lake.
But four years later, Bergey sold the property to Tug Hill Environmental, which has turned the property into one of the mines he railed against.
Cleaning up sites
Both Santarsiero and Berrigan deny accusations that town residents will be saddled with empty holes in the ground when the mining operations are completed. They stressed there are strict rules for reclamation of the property, which they plan to follow.
In the meantime, Catchpole continues to fight the trucks, which he said speed down the hill past his house. He even has gotten his own radar gun to clock their speed. He also has become an environmental advocate and has a drone he flies over closed ponds in the area, which he said have turned into swamps.
“They call them ponds, but they turn into clay mines,” warned Catchpole as he cautioned other towns against going down the same road.
“It’s affecting the quality of life of people,” said Brochey, who has taken pictures of trucks leaving the mine and trailing behind clouds of dust that obstruct the road.
“Every morning at 7 a.m. on the dot – zoom, zoom, zoom – is when you see the amount of trucks going in and later in the day is when you see all the dust,” said Drahms. “I’d like to see it stopped altogether. This is prime farmland.”