AVERY COUNTY — The state agency charged with protecting the environment may have made a big mistake -- one that already seems to be impacting the North Carolina mountains and the Appalachian Trail.
TheN.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resourcesallowed a mining company to begin blasting a mountain in Avery County that is within sight of hikers and tourists. Homeowners are up in arms, the state's back is against a wall, and the mountain may be forever scarred.
"There's nothing else like this. You start to think the world has gone mad. You think how could this happen," asks resident Jay Leutze of the mountains and the mine.
"It's a disgrace destroying that mountain. It's torn all to pieces now," says resident Ollie Carpenter.
"I've got a lot of money invested in this operation. I'm just hoping this problem will go away," says mining company owner Paul Brown.
There is more here than your typical spat between angry homeowners and a determined company. The Appalachian Trail is located two miles from the mine; Grandfather Mountain is just above it.
Had the state known that, it might never have granted the mining permit.
"It was an oversight," says Don Reuter of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. "It may not have been a mistake in issuing the permit, but it was a mistake in that all the information wasn't considered. There's a lot of permits that come through."
"In this case, I think they missed the ball," says Leutze, who is fighting to save the mountain. "I think when they were climbing up in that mountain, somebody would have said 'What's that right in front of me' and looked at the map," he says. "[The mine] is like the stage in an amphitheatre, and it just broadcasts noise up to all these ridges."
"Once he takes off the top of that ridge it's going to be visible from Grandfather Mountain, I'm sure. As you know, there's a lot of tourists that come to that place just for the scenic beauty" says resident Freddy Carpenter.
Did the state make a mistake in granting the mining permit?
"Granting the permit, it was not as inclusive as it should have been," says Reuter.
Paul Brown owns the mining site known as Putnam Mine. He says he has followed all of the regulations, and does not know what he will do if the state rescinds the permit.
"In all likelihood, there is a possibility we will be sued either way," says Reuter. "This is why this is going to be hard work. We have a chance to do something to correct a mistake and that is what we are working on."
One man who is watching all this very closely is Hugh Morton, the owner of Grandfather Mountain.
"From what I've been told, it will be a tremendous scar. All of us are obligated to save for future generations the best of what we have," he says.
For years, Morton has been doing just that. When engineers wanted to carve a road into a key part of Grandfather Mountain, Morton stopped them. Instead, the road curves around the mountain. Morton has moved roads and he has moved battleships, helping to bring the USS North Carolina to Wilmington. TheCape Hatteras Lighthousemoved despite his opposition. Morton knows he cannot win them all, but knows he has to try.
"We won't be able to see the first part of the mine, but if they start taking off the top of Belview Mountain we'll be able to see it. I think there's better places they could put it," says Morton.
The state now plans to hold public meetings about the mine. The state director responsible for issuing the mining permit will visit Belview Mountain on March 6 to see the impact firsthand.