Bluestone Boom Opens Quarries to New Allies, and to Change
New York Times, May 13, 2008
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Gerald Wormuth at a Catskill quarry. Mining permits could become permanent for New York’s bluestone industry, which is one of the state’s oldest. More Photos >
By ANTHONY DePALMA
Published: May 13, 2008
HANCOCK, N.Y. — Five-foot-10, 270 pounds, with truck axle arms and a rawhide neck, Earl F. Hennessey is a third generation Catskill quarryman who always did things the way his daddy and granddaddy taught him.
Now the state wants him to change.
Hennesseys have been pulling bluestone out of a ridge near Gee Brook since 1934. Mostly they used hand tools — sledges and wedges and rock hooks and butterfly plugs — to get at the smooth, flat slabs of stone that are shipped off to New York City and other places for old-fashioned sidewalks and new rustic patios. When they were done with one section, they would push the scrap rock over the ridge, and let their old trucks rust wherever they died.
After more than 70 years of gnawing at this rock ledge, the Hennesseys have roughed up their mountaintop some. As big a man as he is, Mr. Hennessey is dwarfed by the rusted metal, old wood and mounds of bluestone scrap of his past.
But since he took out a state mining permit for the first time two years ago, this 53-year-old quarryman in jeans, T-shirt and blue bandanna headband, has been piling up scrap rock where he can easily put it back when the bluestone runs out. He’s also been cleaning up. “The state told me I really should get rid of the old metal, and that’s what I’ve been doing,” he said. Last month he sliced up a 1936 International Harvester dump truck and hauled it to a scrap yard.
That, in essence, is the kind of reaction the State Department of Environmental Conservation has hoped for since it started experimenting with mining permits in 2002. The new permitting process combined with an increased demand for bluestone has led to a boom in one of the state’s oldest and most traditional industries.
Scores of new mines have been opened in the last six years, and many old ones have been reactivated. Bluestone, which had shrunk to little more than memories — is now a $100 million-a-year industry, located mostly in economically depressed Delaware and Broome Counties in the Catskills.
At the same time, the state hoped that by issuing permits it could assert some control over the bluestone industry, rein in renegade miners from out of state, and change the habits of the fiercely independent quarrymen.
State officials consider the effort so successful from both economic and environmental perspectives that they have taken the unusual step of openly lobbying to extend the two-year measure, which expires at the end of July. Legislation to make it permanent has passed the State Senate and is expected to come up for a vote in the Assembly this month.
“Rather than go in wholesale with guns blazing and multiple enforcement against the industry, we decided to first undertake an education program with them saying, ‘This is what you’ve got to do,’ and then give them time to come into compliance,” said Bradley J. Field, director of the division of mineral resources at the Department of Environmental Conservation.
That softer approach has convinced some quarrymen that the state does not mean to harass them. Even those who have never gotten a permit before find themselves siding with the department and asking for the law to made permanent. Environmental groups are more tentative. “The state says it’s a win-win situation because the law will improve the economy of the region, and at the same time give regulators the ability to keep an eye on what’s happening,” said Ramsay Adams, executive director of the Catskill Mountainkeeper, an environmental group. “If that’s the case, then it’s something worth looking at. But I’m just not sure that the law they are trying to pass permanently is strong enough.”
The link between the Catskill Mountain bluestone quarries and New York City is as durable as the stone slabs themselves. Some of New York’s first sidewalks laid in the early 19th century were made of Catskill bluestone, and in parts of the city they are still in place, though Mr. Hennessey said he had never seen one because he has never been to New York. The rock, a kind of sandstone found only in New York and eastern Pennsylvania, usually is light blue, but it can be gray, green or red.
By 1870, cutting the slabs out of mountain ledges became such big business that William M. Tweed, the political boss, finagled a partnership out of the New York and Pennsylvania Bluestone Company. He profited greatly by then arranging for the company to supply bluestone for city sidewalks.
By the end of the 19th century, an estimated 10,000 men worked bluestone in New York. The Catskills were riddled with quarries.
As concrete sidewalks replaced bluestone, the industry declined. Then, in 1996, Pennsylvania tightened its restrictions on bluestone mining. Pennsylvania quarrymen flooded into New York, apparently misreading New York’s bluestone mining law.
The law requires quarrymen to have a permit if they extract more than 1,000 tons of minerals in a year. The Pennsylvania quarrymen assumed that meant 1,000 tons of bluestone, and they simply never bothered to get their permits. But officials said that “overburden” — the dirt and rock that have to be moved to get at the bluestone — was meant to be included in the 1,000 tons.
Harry S. Triebe Sr., owner of Sonny & Sons Stone Co. in Downsville, N.Y. and a past president of the New York Bluestone Association, said that quarrymen usually have to remove ten times as much overburden as bluestone when they mine a deposit. He said they could exceed the 1,000 ton threshold in as little as a day.
“Until we actually work a quarry, we don’t know what’s there,” Mr. Triebe said. That meant going through the process of getting a full scale mining permit, and putting up a $5,000 to $10,000 reclamation bond, without knowing if there was enough good quality bluestone to even recoup the cost of the permit. An average quarryman can make about $25,000 to $35,000 a year, Mr. Triebe said.
Most bluestone quarries are nothing like the big sand and gravel excavation pits commonly seen in New York. Bluestone quarries typically cover less than five acres and are worked by one to five men. Most are invisible, hidden in hollows or at the far end of back country roads.
There are now 85 fully permitted bluestone mines in New York. Many more continue to operate without permits. In 2002, New York amended its mining law to give quarrymen more flexibility in exploring for bluestone. Instead of forcing them to get a full mining permit before they could start working, the state issued less costly exploration authorizations. These permitted Mr. Hennessey and other quarrymen to work on less than one acre for a year to see if there was enough bluestone in a new ledge, or in an abandoned one, to turn a profit.
But there’s more. The permitting process allows state officials to get onto the quarries, where they can work with the men, as they did with Mr. Hennessey, to clean up and better protect the environment.
“Earl’s quarry is a perfect example of what the state wanted to accomplish,” said Thomas P. Decker, a geologist who works with the quarrymen. “Before, the state didn’t have knowledge of places like this. Now they know where they are, and they can make sure that after the quarrymen are done, they put these places back the way they were.”
The authorizations can be renewed for a second year. After that, they must either be converted to a full five-year mining permit, or surrendered, and the one-acre site restored. There are now 85 fully permitted bluestone mines in New York. Many more continue to operate without permits.
Blood ties to land and stone are strong in this region. Mr. Hennessey’s father first brought him to the quarry when he was 3, and rock dust has been in his blood since then. Even during the 20 years he served in the Navy, he dreamed of coming back to the mountain.
“It’s kind of like farming; it’s a way of life,” Mr. Hennessey said. His days start at sunrise, summer and winter, and when he is on the ridge, alone or with his brother-in-law Gerald Wormuth, there is no phone, no electricity, no water. The work is back-breaking hard, and the material pleasures are few.
But at 2,500 feet above sea level, Mr. Hennessey can see across several valleys without spying a house or a road. Deer and hawks come close, and it’s awesome, he says.
“It’s a hard way to make a living,” he said, “but it’s a good way to live.”
The quarrymen have won the support of Senator John J. Bonacic, an upstate Republican who sponsored the bill to make the exploration authorization laws permanent. He did the same three years ago when the law expired for the first time, but the effort stalled in the Assembly.
Assemblyman Robert K. Sweeney, a Long Island Democrat who is chairman of the Environmental Conservation Committee, said the state’s endorsement of the measure this time should make the difference. “Without that, we wouldn’t be making it permanent,” he said.
Mr. Hennessey said he did not look forward to changing the way he had done things since he was a boy, but he realized that change may be necessary, and he was willing to give it a try.
“I’m not saying it’s bad, the stuff they want us to do,” he said. “You’ve just got to do things different than you did them years ago.”