Complex quarry dispute in Westerly shows what happens when the absence of long- and short-term planning leads to a collision of residential and economic interests.
Text and photos by FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
WESTERLY, R.I. — Nowhere among the stacks of newspaper clips, inspection reports, court transcripts and other documents devoted to the current use of the former Westerly Granite Co. quarry does the name Tony Soprano appear. But the ongoing feud between the current operators of the quarry and some neighbors certainly has a made-for-TV feel.
In fact, the story would be wildly entertaining if it wasn’t fracturing a community. The nearly-two-year ordeal has featured lawsuits, mediation sessions, public meetings, conflicts of interest and at least one arrest. It doesn’t appear close to being resolved.
Some believe the smashing and blasting of granite is disrupting the lives of longtime area residents and scarring the environment. Others believe there is a witch-hunt underway by those opposed to the reopened quarry. No matter which side you are on, the ongoing dispute has produced a community-wide headache.
Copar Quarries, in the village of Bradford on the Westerly-Charlestown line, began operating in December 2010. Now, three years later, it seems inevitable that a quarry operating in a residential neighborhood along a rural road would lead to a legal tussle.
Back in the quarry’s heyday, the operation was entirely different — man, not machine, provided the power — and local officials hadn’t yet allowed a neighborhood to be built around it. Silica — or stone — dust wasn’t seen as a harmful substance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hadn’t yet discovered that prolonged exposure can lead to the lung disease silicosis and to other lung ailments, including lung cancer.
The former Westerly Granite Co. quarry, at which, more than a century ago, Sullivan Granite was providing the world with some of the finest stone on the planet, had been closed for four decades, when Copar Quarries of Westerly LLC began leasing the property from a prominent local family to run a mining and rock-crushing operation. Copar operates under a now-controversial zoning permit issued to Westerly Granite Co. Inc. in 2007.
Copar Quarries is an aggregate processing company that supplies material for jobs throughout Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York. It operates six days week from 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Three quarry stone crushers break various grades of granite into different sized gravel and into material that concrete and asphalt companies add to their products. The company also sells boulders and rocks for seawalls and riprap. It employs about 50 people, including truck drivers.
During the past three years, the operation has been cited by federal and state agencies and by the town of Westerly for violating environmental, safety and land-use laws. Some of those violations have been appealed, and Copar has filed a lawsuit against the town.
The dozen or so neighbors, who say their lives have been disrupted for nearly two years by loud noises and falling silica dust, and their allies want to know why this business is allowed to continue to give them and the natural beauty of the area a “beating.”
They point to public records unearthed by Charlestown resident Will Collette that show top Copar principals — CEO Samuel F. Cocopard, Randy S. Roberge and Phil Armetta — have a dubious history when it comes to business dealings. They believe this information should have been considered before the operation was approved.
“Fighting an operating facility is tough,” said Collette, editor of the blog Progressive Charlestown and a former longtime organizing director for national grassroots environmental organizations based out of Washington, D.C. “The neighbors are victims. They’re good citizens.”
For the past year, Collette has written extensively on his website about the quarry and its top officials. He has spoken at length with local and state officials about what he considers an operation that goes beyond being just a “dust, runoff and noise nuisance.”
He said he doesn’t understand the economics of the operation. He noted that there used to be plenty of quarry operations and sand-and-gravel pits in South County before the industry died out.
“Copar’s business model makes no sense,” Collette said. “It’s taking good stone and grinding it into (expletive) stone. It’s a crying shame; they’re crushing stone that was the fabric of Westerly society back in the day. It’s not about the stone; it’s about making a hole in the ground and getting into the waste business.”
Collette provided ecoRI News with a stack of public records that he believes raise legitimate questions about the integrity of the business. Among them:
In a 1999 Clinton (Conn.) Police Department investigation report of Cocopard’s arrest for larceny in the third degree, the investigating detective wrote, “A criminal history check determined Samuel Cocopard DOB 08-01-53 has an extensive criminal history in Connecticut. This criminal history includes twenty seven criminal arrests for all financial type crimes. These include Larceny 1st, Issuing bad checks, Failure to pay wages and other degrees of larceny.”
Earlier this year, Cocopard plead nolo contendere in Connecticut Superior Court to larceny of $20,000.
Roberge, Copar’s Rhode Island resident agent who actually lives in Connecticut, is the company’s chief financial officer. Roberge also was the CFO for the Mortgage Lenders Network (MLN), whose demise was one of the triggers that helped burst the U.S. housing bubble.
When Roberge, as managing member of InHome Capital LLC in Middletown, Conn., filed an application in 2007 with the Connecticut Department of Banking for a mortgage broker license, the agency denied his application, saying he lacked the “character” and “integrity” to hold such a license.
The agency noted several states, including Rhode Island and Massachusetts, had issued regulatory orders against MLN, including cease-and-desist orders and temporary license suspension orders. Connecticut’s banking commissioner, Howard Pitkin, also wrote that Roberge violated Connecticut law.
Armetta, a well-connected Copar business investor, served time in federal prison after he was indicted in 2006 as part of the federal probe of the Galante family. Armetta, owner of Dainty Rubbish Services Inc. and Regional Transfer Systems Inc., both at 90 Industrial Park Road in Middletown, Conn., was indicted on a single count of extortion.
In 1995, Armetta drew one of Connecticut’s highest landfill penalties, for violations at his Middletown facility. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined him $355,000.
In his coverage on Progressive Charlestown, Collette also includes a Connecticut developer, Daniel J. Thibodeau, who was alleged to have defrauded 38 condo associations, as being Copar’s controller.
Cocopard said Thibodeau has never had a role in his company. He said Armetta’s role is limited.
Those who enforce Rhode Island’s environmental and public health regulations claim their hands are tied unless the Connecticut-based company clearly violates local, state or federal law. It hasn’t, according to a slew of inspections and a town-funded report.
A quarry reopened
Prior to Copar’s arrival, the quarry had long been quiet, except for the light banging around of Sacco Enterprises Inc., a Charlestown-based company that leased the property in 2009. Now, a group of neighbors claim they are bothered by noise from excavation and rock crushing, which often begins at 7 a.m. They say silica dust covers their homes and cars, and trucks full of gravel, sometimes uncovered, constantly roar through the neighborhood.
Since Copar began crushing fine stone that was once used to create world-famous monuments into gravel, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has issued 47 citations and 16 orders concerning worker and workplace safety, including workers being exposed to excessively loud noise.
Mike Gualazzi, the operation’s affable quality control supervisor who recently gave ecoRI News a tour of the Church Street quarry, admitted there was a learning curve at the beginning with MSHA regulations. He said the company has worked hard to address those concerns.
Since Gualazzi took over the day-to-day operation of the quarry a year ago — he spent the first two years at the quarry working as an operator — citations issued during MSHA inspections have decreased from seven, to four to zero.
“We take safety seriously,” he said. “We’re not hurting the environment or people. We don’t go crazy stripping areas.”
However, the list of alleged violations at the Bradford quarry doesn’t end with the MSHA.
In August 2012, the town of Westerly issued a cease-and-desist order against Copar, claiming the company “willfully violated” local policies and created a nuisance to neighbors. A site inspection by the town found the company had failed to install measures to control stone dust. Copar appealed, and continued to operate.
In fact, members of the Comolli family have accused the Town Council of trying to put Copar out of business and deprive the family of its ability to lease the 108-acre property.
Some town officials have claimed that Copar is performing work outside of the area delineated by the 2007 zoning permit. They have claimed that aerial evidence shows the quarry has extended its borders.
In response to that claim and others, Copar has defied orders to halt work, and in October denied a local zoning official access to the quarry to investigate a complaint.
Copar Quarries and Westerly Granite also have filed a $10 million lawsuit against the Town Council and Zoning Board of Review, claiming they are the victims of a conspiracy that has included bogus findings of zoning violations and other unfair enforcement practices that have violated their constitutional rights.
Among those fraudulent violations, they say, were the six issued in July 2012 by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. DEM has alleged that Copar, Westerly Granite and Sacco Enterprises engaged in activities that altered freshwater wetlands without a permit, failed to obtain a stormwater discharge permit and improperly disposed of solid waste. More than 20 cubic yards of bottles, cans, jars, plywood, vinyl siding and asphalt shingles were found on the property. No one associated with the quarry’s operation knows how that debris got there.
Cocopard has claimed those conditions were there before his company moved in. He has said the company’s top priority is to cooperate and follow the rules. He called the near-weekly DEM inspections a “joke.”
During an unannounced site visit in late November 2012, a DEM inspector found several Dumpsters, including one that held about 15 cubic yards of recyclable material. Copar employees told the state inspector that the stove, refrigerator, metal gutters, a 275-gallon oil tank, an air conditioner and other scrap metal were found on the property by its Quarry Road entrance. They claimed the material must have been dumped there illegally, and was put in the Dumpster in preparation for disposal at the Westerly transfer station.
In February, EPA officials said Copar violated provisions of the federal Clean Air Act and issued the company an administrative order outlining the alleged violations. Copar had failed to perform tests to determine how much dust is generated at the facility, according to the EPA. The agency also claimed Copar failed to notify federal and state environmental officials of the startup of its operation.
Copar representatives have said the EPA order is a preliminary step in an administrative process and doesn’t mean quarry operations are damaging the environment. Cocopard continues to maintain his company has consistently tried to be a good neighbor.
To address concerns of DEM inspectors, who have made frequent unannounced visits to the quarry during the past two years, Gualazzi said a flag pole was erected — “so the inspector could see which way the wind is blowing” — a berm was built to keep noise and dust down, and covers placed on equipment when its not in use.
Birth of a quarrel
In a recent phone interview with ecoRI News, Cocopard said the entire matter began about 18 months ago “when an extremely (verbally) abusive Steve Dubois began ranting and raving on the property” about dust on his deck and in his yard. He said at least one employee has felt threatened by Dubois.
“This whole situation has been fueled by him,” Cocopard said.
Dubois, a Church Street resident, was arrested last week and charged with trespassing on Copar property. Police received a complaint from Copar on Dec. 2 that Dubois was seen on the quarry property during the week of Nov. 25. The individual who allegedly saw Dubois on the property gave a formal statement to police. Dubois is scheduled to appear Jan. 3 in Fourth Division District Court.
Dubois, who has lived about 1,500 feet from quarry for the past 23 years, denies ever being on Copar property. In fact, he called the arrest “bull (dung)” and said he was taking photographs of the property from Route 216.
He said he has a pilot’s license and flies over the property often, taking pictures to document quarry activity. “Why would I walk on their property when I can fly over it?” Dubois asked. “I didn’t and I don’t.”
Gualazzi, however, said he has seen Dubois and others on the property “hiding in the woods when we’re blasting.” He said he has even confronted Dubois on quarry property.
Edward and Danielle Balbat, Susan Clayton, Louis and Nancy Pucci, Steve and Cheryl Dubois, Christina Holden Shea and Charles Marsh, among others, claim the frequent flow of silica dust onto their homes and into their lungs and the near-constant banging of heavy equipment is ruining their neighborhood.
They argue that dynamite blasting on a property so close to the Woody Hill Management Area and Quonochontaug Pond is damaging the environment and nearby homes.
To deal with these issues and related health concerns, neighbors came together about two years ago and formed the Concerned Citizens of Bradford & Charlestown (CCBC) to raise community awareness.
“They’re blasting every two weeks,” said Clayton, a CCBC member who lives in Charlestown, about a quarter of a mile from the quarry. “There are numerous blasts. I thought it was an earthquake once. The house trembled. It’s a crazy, horrible situation.”
She said blasting and other quarry work interrupts water flow and causes “red sludge, copper-colored,” to come out of her home’s faucets. She claimed quarry blasting has caused structural damaged her house of 26 years.
“This company is basically raping the land. It looks like a meteor from space hit there,” said Clayton, who works as a third-shift nurse. “It used to be like Shangri-La here. Now there’s no more birdsong.”
Gualazzi said a subcontractor conducts blasting on the property once a month, using liquid dynamite. Blasts usually occur between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., he said.
Cocopard said he knows some neighbors have claimed quarry blasting has cracked concrete foundations, plaster walls and brick chimneys. He said there’s a simple solution to the situation: a homeowner can file an insurance claim and have a surveyor determine the cause. He said no such claim has been filed.
“There’s all this noise about damage caused by blasting, but no complaint filed,” Cocopard said. “We’re a fantastic neighbor who runs a big business.”
He said 28 neighbors who live within a mile radius of the quarry have signed a petition supporting his business.
“The town is sick and tired of neighbors complaining,” Cocopard said. “Their phone lines are burning up to satisfy three to four taxpayers.”
Report findings debated
While the amount of dust in the neighborhood around the quarry does increase after blasts, dust levels at all other times during a recent test period were below federal health and environmental standards, according to the town-financed report conducted by Providence-based Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. (VHB).
The recently released 47-page report also found that Copar operated within town noise limits. VHB, however, said that Westerly’s noise ordinance criteria are high in comparison to other communities in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The firm studied dust levels between Sept. 16 and Oct. 4 to determine whether the levels complied with standards set by the EPA for ambient particulate matter. No violations of the standards were found.
Town officials had the study done to determine whether Copar’s operation is causing a health hazard to residents who live near the quarry. The study found just one sample of crystalline silica, a component of gravel that causes lung cancer, silicosis and other health problems, according to the CDC. This sample, taken at the quarry, was below standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to protect workers.
Copar and local officials have offered different interpretations of the report’s results. Copar representatives have said the study confirms, with scientific evidence, that their business is in compliance with local, state and federal standards.
Some town officials have said the report provides evidence that Copar is causing stone dust to drift from the quarry and onto nearby homes and the Bradford Elementary School.
Dust was monitored at three homes, at the Bradford School and at the quarry. Additional samples, for some tests, were taken from the surface of the Bradford public drinking water tank on Woody Hill Road. In addition to assessing dust levels with monitoring equipment, VHB also took wipe samples at the tank, the three residences and the elementary school.
During the week of Sept. 16-25, the highest level of dust on a given day was found at the Pucci home on Church Street. All of the monitoring stations registered an increase in dust Sept. 19 from 7-10 a.m., the day after a quarry blast. The highest average reading for the 24-hour period after the blast was found at the school, higher even than a reading at the quarry, according to the report.
The report recommended measures to control dust migration, including the use of wind breaks such as trees, shrubs, wind fences and tarp curtains, the placement of stone to minimize dust generation on unpaved roads in the quarry, and adding tarps to trucks used to transport product away from the property.
Last year, the president of a Warwick-based environmental engineering firm testified in Washington County Superior Court that tests conducted over 10 days detected occasional elevated levels of particulate matter in the air around the quarry. He also noted that the results were below EPA standards.
Alliance Environmental Group Inc. was hired by three couples who are suing the quarry operators.
Town records indicate that a portion of the Westerly Granite property is zoned for light industrial use and that a portion of the land is zoned for residential use. Copar and Westerly Granite claim the entire parcel is light industrial and that the town never followed the proper steps to change the zoning designation.
Regardless of how town maps and designations by the tax assessor are being interpreted, some would argue that cutting, digging and blasting for stone would fall under heavy industrial use.
To paraphrase multiple definitions, the distinction between light and heavy industrial uses is often measured by the degree to which the industrial use transforms bulk raw materials into a finished or semi-finished state. Heavy industrial uses typically involve the processing of raw materials into a more refined state. Light industrial uses typically involve the manufacturing of parts or products from those refined materials for assembly into a finished product.
One way of characterizing heavy industry is that one unit of currency will buy more heavy industry-produced products than it would buy light industry-produced products. For example, more gravel can be bought for a dollar than pharmaceuticals.
To help keep the dust produced by the practice of crushing and blasting stone, Copar’s Bradford operation is required to spray water on its rock smashers while they are in use. CCBC members claim that practice isn’t always followed or effective.
Gualazzi noted that the quarry has a network of fire and garden hoses and employs a water truck in its efforts to keep dust from becoming airborne. “I don’t think dust is escaping the property,” he said. “We’re constantly watering our sand piles.”
CCBC members, while upset with what they call the “disrespectful” actions of their mining neighbor, are bewildered that local zoning laws allow for this odd mix of land use to exist next to each other.
They claim the permit issued to reactivate the long-dormant quarry was erroneously approved. They don’t believe the state, most notably the DEM, is doing enough to protect their health and quality of life.
“You know what DEM stands for?” a clearly frustrated Dubois asked during a recent phone interview with ecoRI News. “Don’t Expect Much. DEM has no teeth. They’re afraid they’ll get sued if they write up or close Copar down.”
He said he wouldn’t have moved into the neighborhood two decades ago if he knew a quarry would one day be operating in his backyard. “The quarry was abandoned for a significant amount of time,” Dubois said. “Five years ago we lived in the nicest place in the world. We moved here because of the peace and quiet and because of the beauty of the area. Now we’re getting beat to death by an operation that doesn’t belong here now.”
At the beginning of this ongoing feud, Cocopard offered to buy Dubois’ house on Church Street and another home on Quarry Road for $500,000 each.
Conflicts of interest
Last year, three neighborhood families — Balbat, Dubois and Pucci — sued Copar, Westerly Granite and the town of Westerly. They claim the zoning permit was issued improperly. They claim quarry operations had ceased prior to 2007 and that Copar should have been required to get a special-use permit, because the property had been used for nothing more than a stone storage facility.
At one point in the proceedings, Superior Court Judge Brian Stern threatened to jail principal officials for contempt if Copar continued to violate the town’s consent order. Stern eventually placed the company under court supervision and appointed Providence attorney John Deacon to mediate the case and tabbed Ronald Gwaltney as the on-site monitor at the quarry.
However, Gwaltney was compromised when George Comolli, lawyer to and member of the family that leases the property to Copar, took the court-appointed quarry monitor on a golfing trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C. After the story became public, because of the reporting of The Westerly Sun, the judge ordered Gwaltney removed as monitor.
Soon thereafter, Gwaltney was under the employ of Copar. In fact, during a July 15 unannounced site visit, he told the DEM inspector that he “is working with a chemistry professor at URI to develop methods to quantify the particulate matter that may be traveling from Copar towards” neighbors’ property.
Cocopard admitted that the golf outing has the look of impropriety, but stands by Gwaltney’s integrity. In fact, that’s why Copar hired him. “His quality of work is fantastic,” Cocopard said. “We wanted to continue with our own monitoring work.”
Comolli, a prominent local lawyer and attorney for the Westerly Housing Authority since 1982, was involved in another Copar-related matter that blurred the conflict-of-interest line.
Robert Ritacco, chairman of the Zoning Board of Review while it was trying to figure out what to do with a cease-and-desist order the town’s zoning officer issued against Copar, also was a candidate to fill the housing authority’s vacant executive director position.
After The Westerly Sun made the story public, Ritacco’s name was removed from the list of candidates.
The town’s first of two cease-and-desist orders was issued by Elizabeth Burdick in August 2012. During the some seven months of stalling by the Ritacco-led Zoning Board of Review in hearing Copar’s appeal of Burdick’s order and subsequent notice of violation, Burdick resigned, a tangled legal battle ensued and the former town employee began working for Copar.
Cocopard said his company hired Burdick because of her exceptional reputation working in eastern Connecticut. She was hired to work at the company’s operation in Lisbon, Conn. She has since been laid off as that site is in transition, Cocopard said.
“There are layers upon layers of conflicts of interest,” said Collette, a CCBC member. “The whole thing is crazy.”
Westerly brought in Charlestown assistant town solicitor Bob Craven as a temporary zoning official. Craven would order the town’s second cease-and-desist order against Copar. That order was issued because local officials believe Westerly Granite submitted faulty maps to the town six years ago.
Judge Stern eventually ruled that Copar’s Bradford operation was causing a nuisance to the three neighbors with its dust and noise, but he allowed the company to continue its operations, subject to good behavior, monitored by the court.
Area residents have sent e-mails pleading for help to the governor, and the DEM’s extensive file on Copar Quarries include several manilla folders filled with complaints registered by quarry neighbors. Dubois, for one, has written to DEM multiple times. An e-mail dated Sept. 11, 2013 and sent to local and state officials at 3:11 p.m. is one of example. He wrote:
“as i sit here typing this .... i want to cry! i have a pool that no one has been in in 2 years ... came home from work early and everyone is gone no one wants to stay at home because the noise from copar is so loud you have to yell to talk. all the windows are shut so no dust comes in my home it is 97 in my kitchen and almost 100 in my bedroom. my family wants to GET THE HELL OUT OF THIS TOWN RIGHT NOW BUT NOBODY WILL BUY MY HOUSE ... at least my dogs get a break i can take them to the beach now for the rest of the afternoon. ... i have been trying not to bother any of you but this situation is going to drive me nuts.”
Other neighbor complaints registered with DEM include:
April 23, 2013: “The dust is everywhere. Hard to comprehend that the people involved with this do not believe that the blasts do not disrupt the integrity of our homes, that the dust does not migrate from the quarry, and that the noise does not eat away at our patience.”
April 18, 2013: “I can’t even put my thoughts into words anymore, that is how disturbing this whole situation is to myself and my family. Not only do I hope and hold my breath everyday my 4 innocent children remain healthy and do not get stricken with lung disease, the 10 straight hours of noise from their activity everyday has been torture, the level of noise is indescribable and nobody cares, nobody comes to witness what we endure everyday.”
Despite numerous inspection reports that date back two years, neighbors believe it took too long for DEM to catch Copar in the act of releasing excessive silica dust from its site at 271 Church St. They claim state officials rebuffed neighborhood complaints for months, saying they could only issue a notice of violation if an inspector personally witnessed one.
Collette, however, noted on his website that this past January, DEM was quick to issue a notice of intent to the town of Charlestown for burning wood pallets during its annual New Year’s Eve bonfire at Ninigret Park — under the watchful eye of Charlestown Fire District personnel. DEM cited Charlestown based on an anonymous complaint without having an inspector personally witness the violation, according to Collette.
Rep. Donna Walsh, D-Charlestown, got DEM to rescind the violation. She also let the agency know she didn’t appreciate its inconsistent treatment of complaints.
A few months later, in early May, a DEM inspector parked his state vehicle downwind of the Bradford quarry — Copar officials claim he parked on their property — and used the car as a collection device. He made sure the car was squeaky clean and then collected samples of the dust that accumulated.
“After the time lapse of forty-five minutes, the inspector evaluated a short hand swipe over the prepared windshield surface and noted that his hand had glistening particles,” according to an inspection report. “Based on the wind direction and the location of the vehicle, (Copar) was the only source of the fugitive dust detected on the vehicle’s windshield during the forty-five minute time frame.”
That was enough for DEM to issue a notice of violation on Aug. 21 that ordered Copar to take steps to prevent dust from escaping in the future and fined the company $1,500. Copar appealed the citation. The entire matter remains in multiple levels of litigation.
“Some neighbors are not going to stop complaining until we are gone,” Gualazzi said.