An infant’s gravesite, environmental concerns could put proposed Caswell County mining operation on the rocks

An infant’s gravesite, environmental concerns could put proposed Caswell County mining operation on the rocks

- in Environment, Top Story
Gravestone from 1921 commemorating the birth and death of infant Rubbie Francis Wade
(Photo courtesy of Sterling Carter)

In addition to historic cemeteries and archaeological resources, state is concerned about asbestos, drinking water pollution 

Rubbie Francis Wade entered this world in 1921. She left it eight months later, in the summer of 1922.

A descendant of the enslaved, Rubbie was not considered by whites important enough to document. Neither her birth nor her death were officially lodged with the Caswell County Register of Deeds. But we know from her delicately carved gravestone that she was the daughter of Robert and Norah Wade. 

She must have been loved. Rubbie’s small body was buried near Prospect Hill, and her grave, one of the few in the area that is marked, lies “in the middle of the woods, next to a tobacco field, far off the road,” Caswell County Commissioner Sterling Carter wrote to his constituents last month. 

Rubbie was important nearly 100 years ago, and she is important today. Her remains and those of an unknown number of Black people lie near or beneath the site of a proposed granite quarry in Prospect Hill that, including roads and buffers and an asphalt plant, would consume 630 acres.

In their union with the living, the deceased might be capable of stopping it.

State interagency reviews of the application submitted by Carolina Sunrock criticized the company for its omission of vital information from its mining permit application. The Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, and the Wildlife Resources Commission, along with members of the public, have also expressed concerns about the potential harm the proposed quarry poses: to the drinking water supply; to ecosystems, including rare species; abandoned cemeteries; and possible troves of archaeological resources dating from 8500 to 3000 BC.

Scott Martino, environmental compliance officer for Carolina Sunrock, did not respond to requests for comment.

Carter is a genealogist and historian. He told Policy Watch that a concerned resident led him to Wade’s grave, which is adjacent to the proposed quarry. The resident showed Carter two other sites on the quarry property where he and his brother played as boys, and where they rested among the graves.

Those gravesites, though, appear to have been destroyed, Carter said, likely when the land was timbered.

This discovery prompted Carter to write to his constituents: “The rest of the fieldstone head and foot markers are bare and their identities may be lost to time. Or maybe not. Through research still to come, I hope to discover who the remaining stones may belong to.”

Carter said it is likely that cemeteries of former enslaved people and their descendants are on the proposed quarry site. Historic cemeteries are protected under state law. Their existence can halt a project, but in many cases, they are protected from development encroachment by buffers. In some cases, the bodies can be exhumed, the graves relocated.

Carter also contacted State Archaeologist John Mintz, who subsequently recommended to DEQ that the company hire a professional archaeologist to document any cemeteries. And in the event these sites are found, the company should have an “avoidance plan” and an “unanticipated discoveries plan.” If a construction crew finds human remains, legally it must stop work and notify state officials.

Caswell County Commissioners this week unanimously voted to hold a public hearing on a possible 12-month moratorium on quarries, mines and asphalt plants. The hearing is scheduled for Monday, Dec. 16 at 9 a.m. at the Caswell County Courthouse in Yanceyville.

A previous archaeological survey conducted 40 years ago for the City of Roxboro revealed ancient sites along the northeastern boundary of the proposed quarry. These sites date from the Archaic Period, 8500 to 3000 BC, when nomadic hunters and gatherers began settling down along major river valleys, made pottery and stone tools, and began domesticating native plants. “There is a high probability that additional archaeological resources may be present within some portions of the 630-acre proposed area of disturbance,” wrote Ramona Bartos of the State Historic Preservation Office to DEQ.

The historical significance of the quarry site can’t be overstated, Carter said. “I hope you will help me spread the word that these places matter,” he wrote to Caswell County residents. “And just like the resting places of our own families and even our own future resting place matters — that peace should never be disturbed.”

An array of environmental concerns

The archaeological and cemetery discoveries are new. But Caswell County residents — and now state officials — are concerned about a significant environmental threat: the quarry’s likely harm to drinking water supplies. At least 70 households within a mile of the quarry rely on private wells; if the groundwater becomes contaminated, their drinking water could be as well. Or their wells could run dry. Carolina Sunrock proposes sucking up to three million gallons of water each day for the quarry operations. A straw that big could drain the aquifer dry.

The quarry also would be located about 1,000 feet from Lake Roxboro, the supplemental drinking water supply for the City of Roxboro. Because Sugartree Creek, unnamed streams and wetlands on the property feed tributaries to the lake, the state has classified them as “High Class” waters, which are subject to more rigorous regulations.

“They’re proposing open pits going across streams???” wrote Tamera Eplin, a regional engineer with DEQ’s regional office in Winston-Salem. And because of the design of the mine and its discharge system, she added, “it is unlikely this mine will avoid impacts to creeks and buffers.”

The state Wildlife Resources Commission also has serious reservations about the potential, if not likely, deleterious effects on the waterways. “We are hesitant to concur with the approval of this mining permit,” wrote Olivia Munzer, the WRC’s Western Piedmont Coordinator for Habitat Conservation, to DEQ. In addition, dewatering could harm the “significantly rare” Carolina ladle crayfish, which depends on adequate streamflows to survive.

While it’s common for state agencies to ask for more information, judging from their written comments, Carolina Sunrock’s application is sloppy. DEQ detailed more than 10 points — many of which begin with the words “provide proof” — that the company must address before the application can be considered. The company stated that when finished with the excavation, it would reseed the quarry using native grasses and trees. However, Munzer noted that the grasses listed on the seeding schedule are “all non-native and/or invasive species.” Previous pumping tests were also inaccurate, DEQ wrote, and need to be re-conducted.

In addition to air pollution from the proposed asphalt plant, there are other potential invisible dangers: asbestos and radon. Because the quarry would lie within the state’s slate belt, which can contain naturally occurring radioactive rock and asbestos, excavation could release that material. “Please provide proof radon will not be an issue,” DEQ wrote. “Explain how your company will protect those individuals near the site from being affected by asbestos.”

The proposed quarry has created unintended consequences — for Carolina Sunrock. The issue has galvanized a rural community. It has heightened awareness of the precious and finite nature of natural resources. And the world now knows about Rubbie Francis Wade. Her life was short, but with quiet power, she’s protecting her community, 100 years on.

A map of the proposed 630-acre site. More than 420 acres of the property will be “disturbed” by the mining. Hillsborough is 14 miles south; Roxboro lies 17 miles east. (Map: DEQ)