CENTRAL POINT — Frustrated residents along Gold Ray Road have had their fill of wells going dry, contaminated water and what they perceive as a lack of government oversight of a rock pit they believe is draining their aquifer.
"Is that too much to ask for — clear, drinkable water?" said Jill Lusk-Meierl, owner of the Tolo Tavern. Lusk-Meierl said when she took over the business in 2002, she got 3.5 gallons a minute from her well. But that dropped to about 3.5 gallons an hour about a year and a half ago. She then had another well put in, but it decreased by about a gallon a minute this past summer.
Lusk-Meierl and 18 other residents along the road contacted state officials, who conducted an investigation and will release results in about a week. They said the investigation determined Rogue Aggregates has done nothing to affect surrounding wells.
Rogue Aggregates officials said wells monitored by the state haven't shown any changes in output and recent studies by a well company and a hydrogeologic firm show no connection between the mining operation and the problems with neighbors' wells.
"Based on our studies, we have concluded that the wells in the Gold Ray Road area are not being affected by the rock pit operation," the company stated in written responses to questions posed by the Mail Tribune.
After the residents complained over the summer, Rogue Aggregates paid an outside contractor to inspect the wells and replace pumps, filters and other components. The company also offered to install storage tanks.
Residents, many of whom live less than 1,500 feet from the quarry, said their wells were doing just fine until the digging began in the pit in 2000.
In 1998, an analysis by Nielson Research found wells in the area were free of bacteria and other contaminants.
More recently, the residents tested the water and found fecal coliforms and other contaminants after they became sick, many of them complaining of gastrointestinal problems.
"They have infected all of our wells," said resident Jodie Stacey, referring to Rogue Aggregates.
One of her neighbors, John Wespremi, said, "They're making millions while they're making us sick."
At Stacey's home, the dirty water, which her family no longer drinks, leaves a muddy layer on the bottom of their toilet tanks and has a film on top. Water is so contaminated that some of the neighbors say they have replaced toilets, water heaters and washers because of the grit.
Rogue Aggregates pays for the bottled water at the some of the residents' homes, including Stacey's.
Frank Schnitzer, a reclamation specialist with the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, said Rogue Aggregates isn't helping the neighbors because it has done anything wrong.
"From their perspective they're being neighborly," he said. "From the neighbors' perspective, they feel (Rogue Aggregates') actions show they're to blame."
Schnitzer said it's difficult having a rock pit as a neighbor, and Rogue Aggregates is being proactive with residents.
Rogue Aggregates, which has operated in the area for 30 years, stated, "Being a good neighbor and being concerned about our neighbors' perception of our operations has always been our company philosophy and will continue to guide our actions."
Schnitzer said the problems with wells this past summer are the result of a poor recharge of the local aquifers despite a normal rainfall. He said the recharge rate was similar to the poor levels in the drought of 2001.
He said some of the affected wells aren't in the same aquifer as the rock pit.
The residents say that the underground geology is complicated, and they believe the huge open gravel mine has destabilized the aquifer and water from the surrounding area drains into the pit.
"They've dug it so deep it's like pulling a cork out of the bottle," said Stacey. "It's like a toilet. It's all being flushed away."
Resident Dan Hibner said he used an electronic range finder and he believes the pit is about 120 feet deep.
Bill Gibson, support manager at Rogue Aggregates, performed a rough measurement of the depth of the pit at the request of the Mail Tribune. Not counting the 10-foot berm around the rim, his measurement was 63 feet, an amount substantiated by Schnitzer of DOGAMI.
Gibson said 65 feet is the maximum depth of excavation for the kind of rock needed for roads and other construction projects. "That's where the aggregate ends," he said. The company mines 750,000 tons of rock annually and expects at least a 10-year life out of the pit.
Gibson said the amount of groundwater flowing into the pit out of the southern rim is about 15 to 20 gallons per minute. Water entering the pit arrives from other sources such as storm runoff, rain and surface water. The groundwater, which is measured separately, flows into the pit primarily from the south of Gold Ray Road toward Bear Creek, according to Rogue Aggregates.
Neighbors said they're not buying the company's assertions, nor those from the state agencies.
Wespremi said it seems obvious to the residents that their problems stem from all the water flowing into the pit.
"It's a common-sense, logic thing when you've got that many people that close to this thing," he said.
Neighbors also recount an Aug. 20 meeting when Gibson told them some of the monitor wells were showing drops in water levels.
Gibson sent Jodie Stacey a letter on Aug. 14 offering a new well system and 2,000-gallon water storage tank. "Our proposal is to spend the money on neighbor hood water systems (that should add value to your property) instead of wells that will be destroyed" in the excavation process, the letter said.
"This removes any question whether the water systems have a problem or if the water level in the well is being affected," stated the letter, written prior to the company hiring experts who found the pit wasn't affecting neighbors' wells.
Under the existing mining permit, Rogue Aggregates could continue its mining operation up to 200 feet from a neighbor's property.
Schnitzer said the final report on the state's investigation hasn't yet been prepared, but the state will require that Rogue Aggregates not have any impact on surrounding wells from its mining operation or replace the lost water.
"We will have conditions that they can't impact an adjacent well no matter what," he said.
Schroeder Law Offices in Portland, which represented the neighbors until recently, sent a letter on Oct. 2 to the state and Jackson County demanding that Rogue Aggregates' operating permit be suspended until a series of questions about the operation were properly addressed. Other letters on Oct. 4 warn Jackson County and state agencies that the neighbors would file a claim for damages.
Neighbor Ralph Johnson said he took his house off the real estate market because he's had so many problems with the wells.
Because he would have to disclose the well problems, Johnson said, "Now, I can't sell it."
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.