We Must Protect Our Rural Communities. Help Me Do It.
In my experience, families and residents in Caswell County will come out in droves for a school event or a community festival. But a political event or public hearing? Not so much. As with many of our rural communities, government just isn’t seen as the route to get things done.
That’s why I was amazed by the turnout last week as over 200 people from Caswell, Orange, and Person counties came out to share their thoughts with a panel of officials from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Public comments went on for over four hours, with folks staying late into the night to share their concerns about a new 426-acre quarry planned for a quiet corner of Caswell county.
The quarry was top of mind. But under the surface was a bigger question that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about in the week since: what is the role of government in both promoting and protecting North Carolina’s rural communities?
The comments I heard last week weren’t political or ideological. They were about a way of life. A farmer explained how quarry pollution entering his well would end his business. Residents talked about the natural environment they treasure being ruined by the noise, dust, and pollution. Many had delved deep into science and policy about protecting endangered species in streams and the other impacts of industrial contamination of their water.
But while these comments weren’t about politics, the solution they nearly uniformly asked for required legal and political action. Government isn’t always the solution; but when a community comes together to fight a proposal that threatens their way of life, government must be how they express that will and protect themselves.
Too often, government has been seen by many rural communities as someone else’s tool. We must give all our neighbors a reason to believe that government is their tool too.
At the hearing, many residents spoke passionately and forcefully about the legal criteria DEQ must use as they review the application for the quarry permit. As they argued for why those criteria should lead to the permit being denied, their love for their community came through. DEQ officials must follow the law, but my job as a State Representative is to represent the people. Their convictions had a deep impact on me.
I can’t promise any specific outcome, but I can promise to speak up on behalf of my constituents and ensure that DEQ makes a thorough and complete review of the permit application. And I will ensure DEQ uses the full extent of their power to protect this community, up to and including denying permits for the quarry if there are scientific and legal reasons to do so.
The stakes are high, in part because of bad politics. A law passed in 2017 says that if the quarry is permitted to open, there can be no review of its permit for the life of the project — which is listed at 50 years in the permit application.
I voted against that law, Governor Cooper vetoed that law, and the Republican-majority legislature overrode the Governor’s veto to allow it to take effect. I doubt that many local residents followed the law through the legislature at the time, but here it is, literally impacting their backyards and livelihoods.
Local options to prevent the quarry are virtually zero, because Caswell County has no zoning controls for its rural areas. I understand why; rural North Carolinians truly do not want their government telling them what to do with their land. They want to be able to farm it, hunt on it, or do whatever they need to use it for profit or peace.
But when we give up so fully on government, those same independent citizens lose something critical. While we might feel empowered that our individual rights are protected, we lose the ability to protect ourselves against a collective threat. When your land, air, and water might be adversely affected by a giant quarry on someone else’s land, we must have a government capable of doing something to protect the deep connection you feel between your life and your environment.
So, what is the role of government in promoting and protecting our rural communities? Some would say that government should stay out of the way, because any business that wants to enter a rural community will help it. The residents I have heard from do not seem to agree with that. They want a balance between their property rights, their desire for a strong economy, and the protection of their environment.
I want to help find that balance. The organizing I’ve seen in response to the quarry proposal is a tremendous step towards making rural voices heard and I will help amplify and strengthen that voice in every way I can. If you have thoughts about the quarry or any other issue impacting your rural community, please contact me. I want to help.
Graig Meyer is the State Representative for House District 50, serving Caswell and Orange Counties. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.