David Faces Goliath Over Future of Farmland

As stock prices rise and fall, as fortunes made on paper or computer go up in smoke, two things remain constant: the need for food, and for productive land. Within 25 years, farmers worldwide will have to feed 39 percent more mouths than they do now, the Worldwatch Institute says. Yet, in the United States - the world's breadbasket - nearly 3 million acres of cropland were paved over between 1982 and 1992.

Take Ohio, where farm acreage dropped 29 percent between 1954 and 1992. Last June, the state granted a permit to giant Martin Marietta Materials to mine limestone from some of the country's finest farmland.

Fortunately, the land, in Wilson Township, part of Clinton County, has its defenders, and they're angry. Immediately after the state issued the permit on June 6, the Clinton County Environmental Preservation Association, a new grassroots group of farmers and other citizens, won a temporary restraining order in county court. Later, they were joined by the county commissioners and regional planning commission. After winning three other stays, they're now presenting their case before the state Reclamation Commission, asking that the decision be vacated.

It's a classic David and Goliath battle. The Division of Mines has never refused a permit; Ohio Gov. George Voinovich is very development-minded; and Martin Marietta has millions of dollars to spend on lawyers and expert witnesses.

A key issue here is environmental damage. Quarry opponents point to air pollution from limestone dust, as well as oil leaks and exhaust coming from some 39,000 truckloads of limestone a year. There also would be noise pollution from blasting 12 hours a day.

Martin Marietta estimates it would explode holes in the earth 312 times a year, using ammonium nitrate, the explosive used to bomb the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. If so, high nitrate levels could seep into groundwater. Waste water would eventually reach a lake that is the main source of county drinking water. And this bountiful land would become a dusty crater for generations to come. Martin Marietta disputes this. But one need only look at aerial photos of quarries already dug by the corporation in nearby Lynchburg.

Other communities in Martin Marietta's 25-state empire recount similar experiences. To cite only three: Residents of Clay Township near Dayton say instead of starting no earlier than 7 a.m. and ending at 10 at night, as promised, the blasting starts at 5:30 a.m. More truck traffic has followed, and houses have suffered structural damage. In Indianapolis, people also complain about structural damage. And in Between, Ga., which has a population of 82 and an area a half-mile in diameter, Martin Marietta is seeking a quarter of the land for a quarry. "The blasting will drain into one of the cleanest sources of drinking water in Georgia," Mayor William Sullivan says. "We're fighting this, but the quarrying lobby is strong. And Martin Marietta has deep pockets."

So why is Martin Marietta spending millions on this seemingly obscure lawsuit in Clinton County? Company vice president Paxton Badham has said Martin Marietta sees this as an area of growth, ripe for further development. This means markets for gravel and stone used for new shopping malls, homes, driveways, parking lots, and, above all, roads. Governor Voinovich seems determined to leave Ohio with an even greater network of superhighways.

All this poses a double whammy for those of us who want to preserve a healthy environment. We see limestone quarrying not only as a threat to the water, air, soil, and wildlife, but as a portent of even greater despoliation of the earth.

More roads would pave over more farmland, inviting more cars and more trucks. That, in turn, would lead to more carbon emissions and, eventually, to climate change, with a profound effect on agriculture, fisheries, coastal wetlands, insect populations, storm systems, and people. Environmentalists say we should be breaking from our addiction to the automobile. Instead, increased production of limestone helps feed it.

Defeat in this case would destroy the aura of invincibility Martin Marietta projects. It also might inspire other "Davids" to fight harder against the "Goliaths," to become voices of the land, which ultimately gives us all life.

* Marjorie Hope and James Young are professors emeriti at Wilmington College in Clinton County, Ohio.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.