The Daily Gamecock

Column: Holistic solution needed to prevent future tragedy at Vulcan Materials Company quarry

Vulcan Materials Company Columbia Quarry second entrance located off Rosewood Drive.
Vulcan Materials Company Columbia Quarry second entrance located off Rosewood Drive.

The tragedies at the Vulcan Materials Company quarry in the fall of 2020 and 2021 have robbed our student body of two young men. As many call for action, accusations aimed at the Vulcan Materials Company cannot be the only vessel for change. The university and the student body need to be involved for a wholistic solution. 

USC students Sam Laundon and Michael Keen were found dead in the quarry just more than a year apart. Laundon died in October 2020 and Keen died in November 2021. The quarry, which is off Bluff Road and Georgia Street, is a mere 50 feet from the Olympia and Granby Mills student housing complex, according to the Vice President of Permitting and External Relations at Vulcan Materials Company, Jimmy Fleming. 

It is tempting to want to blame Vulcan Materials Company, the owner of the quarry, for the deaths of Laundon and Keen. Rumors swirled after Keen's death of un-fenced areas, allowing students to access the property. But, Vulcan is fighting back by planning on prosecuting trespassers on their property.

The quarry is secured by more than 3 miles of fencing, most of which has barbed wire, Fleming said. 

“I think the entire area is fenced," Fleming said. "The woods and berms and fencing are sort of the three things that we have around our facility ... all of those help provide buffers to our property.” 

The Vulcan Materials Company also met with university officials to discuss safety protocols following Keen's death, according to university spokesperson Jeff Stensland. In an email to The Daily Gamecock, Stensland said there is no open path to the quarry. 

Because there are no direct paths to the quarry, it makes it difficult to accuse the company of negligence on that front. However, just because the fencing exists does not mean the Vulcan Materials Company is faultless. 

After seeing history repeat itself with the loss of another student's life, Anderson Reese, a third-year political science student, created a petition

“Seeing that nothing had been done since the first incident is what really kind of pushed me over the edge of just being like 'this is unacceptable.' How many more is it going to take for something to happen?" Reese said.

The petition, which has more than 3,300 signatures as of Jan. 11, calls for the company to secure the perimeter and add more precautions around the 475-foot-deep "death pit." 

 “Vulcan definitely needs to take some responsibility here and actually work to make this a safe place,” Reese said.

The company touts its security with thickly wooded areas, berms and fencing, but although these measures exist, the reality is that two students were able to get around them. The mere existence of fencing does not mean it is effective, Fleming admitted. 

“Just because you have is a fence up doesn’t mean someone is not going to, you know, jump over the fence,"  Fleming said.

The quarry serves as a shortcut for some students walking from places like the Olympia and Granby Mills to Williams-Brice Stadium, according to a WIS News 10 report. Despite this report, Stensland said the university has “no information indicating students frequently attempt to scale the fencing to enter the property.”

With such a complex situation at hand, we find ourselves pointing fingers at each other to make sense of tragedy. Students who signed Reese's petition say the fault lies on the company's fencing, the university says the fault lies in the individuals' responsibility to keep themselves safe and the Vulcan Materials Company blames students for trespassing on private property. 

Pointing fingers is not a solution. A holistic approach will prevent another tragedy. The company and the university need to do better to protect and inform students, while students inform each other and themselves.

The Vulcan Materials Company can do its due diligence by pivoting its current plan from prosecuting students for trespassing to adding higher fences.  Punishment is not a solution and will not stop another accident before it happens. The company needs to be proactive — not reactive. 

USC warns students of the danger and violence around Columbia, but the university must spread knowledge about the quarry with the same scrutiny as it does about Five Points or the train tracks. 

University 101 courses are a great tool to get this information out to first-year students. The university already uses these courses to prepare students for college, so being more specific about the quarry and other dangers is an easy addition to the curriculum.

While Stensland said the university does "stress the importance of maintaining situational awareness at all times and reinforce the importance of bystander intervention," more specificity is needed about the location and dangers of the quarry, because, according to Reese, “no one really knew that it was there.” 

The student body can do its part by traveling in groups and avoiding splitting up. Stay on sidewalks and do not use the quarry as a shortcut. 

No one can say exactly why we lost Laundon and Keen. All we can do now is remind ourselves of their stories and educate each other to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.