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Proposal To Turn Rock Quarry Into Reservoir Faces Mountain Of Opposition

Jul 17, 2018

In Connecticut, a debate is underway about what to do with a protected stretch of watershed land between a public drinking water supply and an old stone quarry.

Tilcon, the quarry’s owner, says its mine is running out of rock. So it’s petitioning to change state law, in hopes of expanding operations into that protected land.

In exchange, when the mining’s done, the company says it will convert the site into a massive reservoir. One that could nearly double local water storage capacity.

But the politics of selling that idea could be tougher than squeezing water from a stone.

To learn more, I made my way through about 120 acres of rocky watershed around the New Britain-Plainville town line. Property that bumps right up against an old trap rock quarry owned today by Tilcon.

Hiking with me was Jim Gosselin. We passed streambeds and bubbling vernal pools, all of which help filter and feed the drinking water supply at the nearby Shuttle Meadow Reservoir.

“This vernal pool, which had a couple feet of water in it after the winter runoff, connected to that one,” Gosselin said. “They’re all interconnected. It’s a part of a larger ecosystem.”

Gosselin was one of several hikers with me from the group Protect Our Watersheds CT. As we hiked, the group’s leader, Paul Zagorsky, pointed out temporary markers showing where a proposed rock quarry could extend.

“So if this is a boundary line right here, this is either at risk, or it’s going to be risk and it’ll be gone,” Zagorsky said.

Activists and state officials say the rocky terrain and vernal pools in this area help filter and feed water into the nearby Shuttle Meadow Reservoir.
Credit Patrick Skahill / Connecticut Public Radio

Tilcon took over the nearby mine in 1979. That same year, the state passed strict laws protecting nearby watershed lands, like this one.

Now, Tilcon wants to change that law. It says its main quarry is running out of rock, so it wants to mine here.

In exchange, the company will donate open space to three towns and, decades from now, convert part of that mine into a reservoir capable of storing about 2.3 billion gallons of water.

Tilcon officials declined to be interviewed. But in a statement, the company’s president, Gary Wall, said the reservoir proposal will allow the company to continue to be a “major employer” while also making the region more resilient to the effects of climate change.

“Can we survive without this? Maybe. Do we really want to run that risk?” said Ramona Esponda, deputy director of New Britain’s Water Department, which owns the watershed Tilcon wants to mine.

During a recent public hearing, Esponda supported the idea. He said more water -- and more local control of it -- makes mining the nearby watershed worth it.

“We know that the scientists, the state Water Planning Council, the state Water Plan are telling us to create plans now to be resilient,” Esponda said.

Connecticut passed its water plan last month. It’s an order guiding water management in a state, which has recently faced some tough droughts. But the Water Planning Council, which wrote that plan, thinks Tilcon’s idea doesn’t fit.

In a recent letter, it said a city-commissioned study was pretty much inventing numbers to support Tilcon’s idea, noting the report “provides no documentation or analysis to substantiate” its figures or the reservoir’s need.

“Bad ideas, like vampires, just keep coming back,” said Peter Tercyak, a state representative from New Britain and member of the Public Health Committee.

Tercyak said Tilcon has pushed this idea before, about a decade ago under the administration of then-Mayor Tim Stewart. It was defeated, but now Stewart’s daughter, Mayor Erin Stewart, is trying to bring it back to life.

Tercyak says if a bill is raised next session, he’ll fight to put a stake through it.

“The reason it would take legislation and things to be able to do this -- is it was made hard on purpose,” Tercyak said. “It was supposed to be made impossible on purpose.”

Erin Stewart, currently running for lieutenant governor, declined to comment. But in a 2016 letter to lawmakers, said the “risk” of destroying watershed land was “worth the reward.”  

Even if law were to change, Tilcon would need lots of permits.

In an email, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Health was blunt, saying testing at an active mine would be “no easy undertaking” and that the department has no recent experience with a project like this.

That’s because Connecticut’s last reservoir was built in the 1960s, according to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Activists from the group Protect Our Watersheds CT hike through part of the area where Tilcon is proposing to expand its nearby trap rock quarry.
Credit Patrick Skahill / Connecticut Public Radio

Back on the trail, Kat Fiedler, a legal fellow with Connecticut Fund for the Environment, said Tilcon’s resilience and climate change messaging are actually masking what could become a broader threat to land across Connecticut.

“As much as the local impacts are absolutely disastrous, it’s also scaling up,” Fiedler said. “It could scale up to a statewide problem very quickly, if we set this precedent.”

That could open the floodgates for other private companies to, potentially, wring more profit out of protected watershed land.