In a far corner of Boston, a 350-foot hole in the ground has been deepening for more than a century. Dust clouds and dynamite blasts often rattle plates in nearby kitchens.
Welcome to the West Roxbury quarry, a rare open-pit rock mine in a major American city. Neighbors have fought the quarry for decades, riled by explosions, rumbling gravel trucks, and residue that settles on cars and countertops like errant talcum powder.
Now, the quarry’s owner wants to go into the dirt business, a plan that has intensified a feud with neighbors that has simmered almost since the quarry opened in 1887.
The proposal sparked contentious community meetings, and spawned a Facebook group that calls itself, “Stop the quarry – No dirty, dirt in West Roxbury.” Enraged local officials are pushing to change the mine’s zoning and have asked the state attorney general to revisit a 16-year-old legal settlement between the quarry by the city.
“It’s awful,” said Stella Kasparian, who has lived on Centre Terrace near the mine since about 1955. “They want to truck in soil with low-level contaminants — up to 300 loads a day — and keep blasting.”
‘We could have at least another 50 years of blasting.’
The tumult reached City Hall last month, when Mayor Martin J. Walsh hosted a meeting with local officials and the mine owners.
Laura Lorusso Peterson of S.M. Lorusso & Sons, the Walpole company that owns the quarry, pledged the soil will not be hazardous.
The company initially proposed filling the bottom of the quarry with 1 million tons of discarded earth from local construction sites, according to documents filed in January with the state. The urban soil — which can contain lead from paint and other contaminants — would be suitable for an industrial site like a quarry, but not a residential neighborhood, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.
Facing opposition, the company scaled back the type of dirt it wanted to bury. Now, the quarry owner insists the soil will be so innocuous that no government approval is needed. Dumping dirt in the pit is part of the beginning of the quarry’s reclamation, a potentially decades-long process of filling the hole.
“We feel . . . as part of the reclamation of the quarry, we don’t necessarily require approval to do it,” Peterson said.
State officials disagree. The Department of Environmental Protection told the company that because of local concern about the dirt, the quarry’s owners must outline their plan and receive state approval, according to the agency’s spokesman, Edmund J. Coletta Jr.
City Councilor Matthew J. O’Malley has proposed a zoning change in West Roxbury that would require the quarry to receive city approval before accepting construction fill.
The measure has been passed by the City Council and signed by the mayor, but still must be approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the zoning commission.
“There is a significant trust issue between the residents of West Roxbury and the owners and operators of the quarry,” O’Malley said. “This can’t been done with a promise and a handshake. There has to be a process in place.”
O’Malley and other elected officials contend that the quarry owners have been evasive about how long they plan to continue blasting the bedrock. The crushed stone is used in asphalt, concrete, and as ballast stone for railroad tracks.
Last year, the quarry blasted 30 times, according to records kept by the Boston Fire Department, which issues explosion permits.
This year, there have been 11 blasts, and the company anticipates 40 for the year, according to Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald.
The quarry has offered to stop blasting by 2030 — but as part of a quid pro quo. Neighbors must allow the quarry to accept the dirt and O’Malley must withdraw his zoning amendment, according to a proposal from S.M. Lorusso & Sons made in the mayor’s office.
“We could have at least another 50 years of blasting,” Peterson said in an interview. “The number is all over the place because it all depends on what the economy is asking for as far as stone. Essentially, we could just keep going down, and it would be the water table that would stop us from going any further.”
Instead, quarry owners offer this plan: They would fill the bottom of the pit with construction dirt while continuing to blast in another part of the quarry.
Peterson said it was hard to say whether it would be more lucrative for the company to blast for stone or bury construction dirt.
Elected officials contend that the quarry has been evasive when pressed for details.
“The four times I have had interactions with them, it’s been four different stories,” said state Senator Michael F. Rush, a West Roxbury Democrat. “The plan is there is no plan. And the plan is you’re going to destroy a neighborhood as far as I’m concerned.”
Tidy, Colonial-style homes with vinyl siding dot the neighborhood adjoining the quarry. To the north sits the wooded property of Roxbury Latin School. On the other side, a tangle of side streets end at a buffer of trees bracketing the quarry.
One recent afternoon, a cloud of dust hovered at Centre and Grove streets as a truck rumbled out of the mouth of the quarry. The dust gave the air a distinct taste. Across the street, whitish-gray residue coated a Toyota Camry in a driveway.
The proposal distributed by the company in the mayor’s office called for up to 300 truckloads of dirt to be ferried into the quarry each day. Right now, 160 trucks a day haul stone out, Peterson said, but at the quarry’s peak during the Big Dig there were 300 a day.
“There’s clearly some concerns on behalf of the residents,” Walsh said after the meeting. “I think as a city, we’re going to work and see what’s the best option for the neighbors.”
During the recent round of community meetings, Peterson said she took to heart what neighbors said.
“I heard them complaining about dust and I heard them complaining about not being notified about a blast,” Peterson said. “I thought to myself, those are manageable things.”
The company set up an automated phone system, Peterson said, and 50 neighbors have signed up to receive calls the day before a blast.
The quarry dedicated a staff member to spray water on the road leading from the pit to tamp down dust. The company also offered to donate $25,000 a year to the community for scholarships and grants.
“That was met at that meeting as an attempt to buy them off,” Peterson said. “It’s something that I’m still committed to, and I still want to do.”
The plan to accept construction fill has troubled even locals who view the quarry in a positive light.
“In general, I think the quarry has been a good neighbor, but I feel like they tried to slip this one in,” said Doreen Rynne, a 55-year-old consultant who lives a few hundred feet from the quarry. “I want to know where [the dirt] is coming from. Is there a way to check if it’s clean fill? I want to know that there is nothing really harmful.”