AUGUSTA — City councilors rejected on Thursday a proposal to extend until the end of the year the mineral extraction licenses of two companies that blast rock in quarries in Augusta.
The purpose of the extensions would have been to give city officials more time to consider changes to city blasting rules to try to address neighbors’ complaints about the effect blasting has had on their lives and homes.
Councilors voted 4-2 against extending the licenses, following extensive debate.
Residents of the Grandview neighborhood asked city councilors Thursday to put a stop to blasting in a West River Road pit they say has damaged their homes and disrupted their lives.
The two companies that blast rock under the provisions of the city’s mineral extraction ordinance, McGee Construction and Quirion Construction, both have licenses set to expire in June.
Neighbors have complained that blasting at McGee’s pit has damaged their homes, made it hard to sell them by lowering their property values, and disrupted their lives with noise and vibrations. Two neighborhood residents asked Thursday that the city put a halt to blasting in the McGee pit, while still allowing mineral extraction there by other methods.
“We’ve always had pit activities there. The game changed when the blasting came in,” neighborhood resident Roland Maheaux said. “I’d like to see an end to blasting.”
Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti, who with Ward 3 Councilor Harold Elliott vote for extending the licenses, said the current mineral extraction ordinance doesn’t give councilors that option, because both companies, generally, have been operating within the restrictions of their licenses. She said the only way to halt or place new restrictions on blasting would be to make changes to the ordinance. She said there isn’t enough time to do that before the companies’ licenses expire. So, she said, extending the companies’ licenses would give additional time for the city to make changes to the ordinance to better regulate blasting.
“So the only way to do anything would be to change the current standards,” she said. “Letting it go to licensing is tantamount to giving everybody a five-year license.”
McGee said about 90 percent of the rock remaining in the pit could be removed only by blasting, as it is so hard it can’t be removed by other methods. He said extending the licenses would be a way to give the city time to work to resolve the issues.
Thursday’s debate was the latest attempt in on-again, off-again city involvement aimed at quieting a long-running dispute, primarily between residents of the Grandview neighborhood and McGee Construction. McGee’s rock-quarrying operation in a West River Road pit near the Grandview neighborhood periodically has rock blasted by Maine Drilling and Blasting, producing aggregate to be used in construction projects.
A representative of Maine Drilling and Blasting has said the blasting at the McGee pit is safe and is not damaging homes in the nearby neighborhood.
Councilors failed to reach consensus on other recent proposals meant to address neighbors’ concerns after extensive debate last year and extending into this year.
An extension of McGee’s and Quirion’s licenses would give the council time to revise the ordinance before their licenses are potentially renewed under the terms of the current ordinance, which Grandview residents have said have not been adequate to protect them.
Both owners then would need to seek to renew their licenses early next year under the terms of the potentially revised ordinance, if councilors do indeed use the extra time to change the ordinance.
The existing ordinance rules and license provisions, including number of blasts per year allowed in each pit, remain in place, and blasting would be able to continue as it has, until the end of the year. Blasting generally takes place only during the construction season, not during the winter.
Currently, Quirion Construction may have 12 blasts a year, while the McGee site can have 10 a year.
Mayor David Rollins said his recommendation was to not delay the license review. He said the previous council tried to modify the mineral extraction ordinance last year, but the effort fell apart after a majority of councilors indicated they wouldn’t support it.
He suggested the council not make changes and allow McGee and Quirion to go before the Planning Board to seek to have their licenses renewed.
He said he’s concerned about the effect of the delay on Quirion, who he said was “not really part of the complaint.”
He said the Planning Board members could sit in, before their review begins, with city councilors to hear a presentation from a blasting consultant the city is considering hiring, to help inform them about blasting issues.
Ward 3 Councilor Harold Elliott, who joined the council in January, said in the last few days he had gotten “a barrage of phone calls with major concerns.”
He said Grandview residents described having cracks in the walls of their homes, as well as drywall screws coming out of walls, which they blamed on blasting. He said they told him the blasts also interrupt their lives.
“I can’t imagine having to continue to live under that,” Elliott said. “I’m voicing the concern of the neighborhood. If you grant this guy another five years, you’re going to get more of the same thing.”
Ward 4 Councilor Anna Blodgett said she has gotten some calls from residents of Riverside Drive, which is across the Kennebec River from McGee’s pit, who said they also have been affected by the blasting, which Blodgett said concerns her.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647