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It is five days before Christmas, and the storefronts in Calico Rock are dark. The night before, a windstorm took out electrical lines, and now only the hardware store stirs, as people pay for propane they've loaded on pick-ups out back. Carlson is walking this reporter through Peppersauce Alley, the only ghost town in America located within city limits. She points out an old cotton gin, mentioned in a couple of John Grisham novels. The conversation turns to Evergreen.
At that Music Hall meeting three years ago, a company representative said that the mine would employ about 30 people for roughly 25 years. There have been two more public hearings, in early 2010 and 2011, to discuss revised plans. In early 2012, local media reported that Evergreen had begun clearing land. Then things stalled. David Williamson, geologist for Evergreen, told the Arkansas Times that for the past year, the company has been developing a customer base, securing financing and negotiating sales agreements. "I don't have a firm schedule, but I think it'll be within the next year. Just to construct a plant and get things ready, that's a matter of four to six months," he said. He expects the processing plant and access roads to cover about 320 acres, and the quarry itself to cover between 50 to 100 acres (likely widening as it's mined) on Twin Mountain. Once the quarry is dry, the company plans to fill the hole with pine vegetation saved from the clearing.
Jerry Weber, a Friends of the North Fork and White Rivers board member, said Arkansas needs stronger laws to ensure that these quarries are reclaimed. "With Arkansas law the way it is, as long as they say they have an intent to continue mining in the future, they don't ever have to resurface over the thing ... . In fact, one of the restoration options they have, if they did want to close the mine, would be to leave a huge open pit and taper the sides of it, like a mini-lake. So they're not putting that ground back on there," he said.
Under the Arkansas Open-Cut Land Reclamation Act, non-depleted mines can avoid reclamation by perpetually renewing permits. A lack of mining activity, even stretching into decades, is not a valid reason for ADEQ to deny those permits. Quarry regulations are even looser, allowing companies to request temporary closure that lasts for an indefinite period. This means that even without active permits, the companies don't have to begin reclamation.
On the other hand, Weber counts his dealings with Evergreen as successful, thus far. Originally Evergreen planned to use 390,000 gallons of water a day, drawn from 2,000-foot wells. It was a potential threat to the water table and nearby family wells. But the Friends convinced the company to construct a holding pond and reuse much of its water. Evergreen will still draw spring water to make up for water lost in processing, and its permit does allow the release of wastewater to "a tributary of Piney Creek ... thence to the White River," with the caveat that no discharge may contain chemicals or solids, and discharges should be sampled and monitored.
Carlson remains skeptical. "I do think that Evergreen has made a lot of changes in their plans in order to be more conscious of the concerns of the people in town. But I hope that the sand mining never starts here," she says as we cross the footbridge back to Main Street, trading a celebrated ghost town for one trying to stay alive.
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