The aggregate mining industry in the United States is squeezed year after year by funding and social pressures. What partly offsets this debilitating pressure is the constant public need for the gravel, sand and crushed rock the industry produces.
Aggregate leaders contacted in September acknowledge the pressure puts on their industry. They voice two recurring concerns: unstable funding of highway and public sector projects, and community resistance to the opening or expansion of mining operations. Those two factors, combined with finite rock and gravel formations in some sections of the country, create a tension that at times wells up into public dispute.
A typical confrontation is in Nassau, NY, where the town board has enacted a series of mining moratoriums to cap a years-long conflict between town residents and several mining companies. The dispute became an election issue and last November the candidates who opposed mining in the area took control of the board. State and company officials so far have been stymied.
“Conflict areas are generally in higher populated areas,” observed Bruce H. Mason, a professional geologist now retired after 15 years as executive director of the Indiana Mineral Aggregates Association. While that states the obvious, it is a central reality: The more populated an area, the more likely some people will object to trucking noise and environmental disturbance associated with mining.
The Nassau “Residents Against Mining,” for example, express in literature and postings on the Web their love for “wildlife, quiet, clean air and water.” The inference, of course, is that companies that mine the earth for needed mineral resources do not love these things.
A Pervasive Material
“Aggregate” generally speaking is the mineral material that is a literal foundation of so many construction projects. It is the sand or crushed stone that is poured into Portland cement or asphalt mixes, and the gravel or stone that is tamped firmly into the lower levels of a roadbed. It is in the concrete pillars that rise on construction sites or concrete sidewalks that hug the ground. It protects coastline highways against battering waves and fashions a smooth bed for a meandering brick walkway across a campus.
Aggregate use is measured in vast tonnage. The Virginia Division of Natural Resources estimates that usage in the United States averages 9 tons (8.1 t) per American per year. Michigan State University researchers concluded that construction of an average six-room house requires 90 tons (81 t) of aggregate and one mi. (1.6 km) of a four-lane interstate highway consumes 85,000 tons (76,500 t) of aggregate material. Geologists in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimate that an average-sized new school structure requires 15,000 tons (13,500 t) of aggregate.
Other researchers estimate even higher aggregate use, and mining operations to produce the material steadily increase. U.S. Geological Survey officials projected in 1995 that aggregate production in the United States in the following 25 years would equal the amount of aggregate mined in the U.S. over the previous 100 years.
Approximately 120,000 people work in the industry, according to the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, with more than 10,000 construction aggregate operations in the United States. Approximately three billion tons (2.9 billion t) of aggregate were produced at those operations last year.
The big numbers add up to major production across the country at quarries, mines and instream mining operations. Much smaller are the numbers that define the product of those mines.
The Ohio DNR characterizes “sand” as rock or mineral material varying from .0002 to .08 in. (.0005 to .2 cm) in diameter with “gravel” stepping up to .08 to 4 in. (.2 to 10.2 cm) in diameter; the stone most often used for gravel is limestone, dolomite, quartzite, shale or sandstone.
Stone can be crushed to create uniform-sized pebbles, or be rendered in much larger chunks for use as riprap material. Though gravel and stone composition varies from one geological region to another, granite frequently is the material for crushed stone products.
Sand and gravel are the only mineral resource produced in each state, according to the Ohio DNR. That the aggregate industry is pervasive is good because unless aggregate is available within a certain proximity of its commercial use, a construction project is severely disadvantaged economically. Public works managers know that the cost of supplying aggregate for their projects can quickly double and triple if the material must be trucked from distant points.
Access as an Issue
Thus, access to local sand, gravel and rock deposits is the first order of business for an aggregate company. Where access is blocked, tensions rise.
In Florida, access to a key mining site is in jeopardy. A federal judge has invalidated 10 new permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for additional mining in the Lake Belt region near the Everglades.
Florida transportation and business leaders are lobbying hard to win permission to resume mining in the area, which supplies much of the state’s road and construction aggregate. The material is trucked throughout south Florida and transported by rail to central and north central Florida.
“The interruption of these supplies would have an immediate impact throughout the state,” said Christine McDonald, a spokesperson of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). She added that the Lake Belt is the only mining legal dispute going on in the state at this time, but it is an important one.
“The department’s transportation maintenance and construction programs are inextricably linked to limestone aggregate production from the Lake Belt mines,” McDonald said. “For the past 40 years, the department has obtained approximately 50 percent of its construction materials from the mines in this region. Therefore, costly delays, stop work situations, and project cancellations throughout the state will result from closing of Lake Belt aggregate mines. In addition, there will be severe disruptions to ongoing and planned transportation construction projects for the foreseeable future.”
The limestone from the Lake Belt area is critically needed because it has silica embedded in it, McDonald said. The silica lets limestone resist the tendency to be buffed till it has a slick “polish.” Thus, the Lake Belt material is prized as an anti-skid aggregate for highway pavement.
Farther north along the East Coast in western New York State, Buffalo Crushed Stone Inc. experienced difficulty in winning public acceptance of new production goals at its Como Park quarry in Cheektowaga, NY. The 75-year-old quarry is a major supplier for construction projects in the western end of the state. Its products range from limestone dust and sand to sub-base gravel and riprap.
A local taxpayers association balked last year at allowing any change in the quarry’s permit. That legal challenge was the latest in a string of community confrontations that have led the company to work more closely with community activists.
“The public relations bit is something we’re not very good at, but we’re adjusting,” company President Steven Detwiler told a Cheektowaga Times reporter back in 2000 during a public tour given to residents to reassure them about the quarry’s rock blasting procedures. “We’re trying to be a bit more open … I think there is a lack of information in the community about what we do here.”
In California, another legal confrontation is playing out. In 1990, CEMEX Inc. officials won Bureau of Mines permission — over the objections of Los Angeles County officials — to produce sand and gravel on a 460-acre (186 ha) site in Soledad Canyon about two miles outside Santa Clarita. Not until 14 years later did the county actually issue a mining permit, which promptly was challenged by officials in Santa Clarita.
Finally in February of this year, the 9th District U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cleared away one of the last barriers to opening the mine, which is expected to produce 56 million tons (50.8 million t) of gravel. CEMEX Spokesperson Susana Duarte said at that time the company still has “numerous hurdles we hope will be resolved in a timely manner. We are open and willing to work with the community and our neighbors.”
Working with a community is a principal focus of any aggregate company, but such interaction of community and company wasn’t always a high priority.
“It used to be that the most difficult part of keeping a quarry going was actually mining the aggregate,” said Fred Allen, the executive director of the North Carolina Aggregates Association. “But many communities are politically active now and have a lot to do with whether quarries open or expand.”
In his own state, Allen cited two mining permits that were denied last year in western parts of North Carolina because of organized community opposition. A third one southwest of the state capitol in central North Carolina more recently was turned down. “That one was in a rather rural area where you would think producers wouldn’t have a problem winning permission, but they couldn’t get it past the county commissioners,” Allen said.
Aggregate associations exist partly for just that reason, to help win over communities that are reluctant to rip open the earth for needed resources. The first aggregate organization was formed in 1903 in Chicago, but the industry really began to flex its muscle 50 years later when the push for interstate highways began under the Eisenhower administration in Washington.
The original impetus of the industry association was to combat what it considered unacceptable government restrictions on mining operations. The focus of today’s National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association is pretty much the same; for example, the organization calls for reform of the endangered species act and continuation of the highway user fee. But the battles for state association members and individual companies are closer to home.
“A company has to be proactive,” Allen said,” in maintaining a good relationship with a community. The companies don’t need to address the public at large, but to focus on the educational component, getting into science classrooms, familiarizing people with natural resources.”
He added that public meetings to talk about planned or proposed quarry expansions are “pretty much standard course.”
The North Carolina aggregate executive said reaching out has to be automatic for companies. “That’s the one thing this industry has to get over,” he said. “We have to familiarize a community with our presence and our activity.”
Do such tactics work? “I would have to say so,” said Allen. “At least in North Carolina, when you read an article in the paper about the industry, it [the industry] seems held in high regard for what we do.”
Allen cited the extensive public relations efforts of Vulcan Materials Company, which operates at various locations in North Carolina. The Birmingham, AL, firm is a major player in the U.S. industry and clearly works at being accepted by the larger community. The company issues a “social responsibility report” and established a foundation in 1988 to work with schools, support environmental causes and fund scholarships. It also sponsors walking and driving tours of its quarry operations as well as visits to its 34 on-site “wildlife habitat” preserves. In 2004, Vulcan topped Fortune Magazine’s list of “Most Admired Companies.”
Even so, Vulcan’s high level of public outreach apparently has not created a comfort zone for the company. Contacted to talk about the issues addressed in this article, Vulcan Public Affairs Manager John English reluctantly responded: “We’d just as soon let the [National Stone, Sand and Gravel] association do the talking.”
Also declining comment were public affairs officials of Martin Marietta Aggregates, the nation’s second largest producer. CEMEX Inc. officials at the company headquarters in Houston were unresponsive. Buffalo Crushed Stone, the private company in New York, passed on the chance for public discussion.
Such reticence is not the norm, said Gus Edwards, vice president/community relations of the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association. “Our members spend a lot of time and money in community relations and education, and the association tries to supply the tools to help the companies — that is, with ideas, literature and materials.”
Among the partners enrolled by the association in its effort to “demystify” what the industry does are the Mineral Information Institute in Denver, which produces materials for schools, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The association helped endow the “rocks gallery” in one wing of the Smithsonian.
Edwards doesn’t make light of the “Not In My Back Yard” factor, which has led community residents to oppose quarry expansions in numerous places across the country. He does note that in many cases the quarries were there before the back yards and that the need for the aggregate grows right along with suburbia.
“A lot of quarries started out on people’s farms out in the country 20 or 30 miles from a city,” he said. “Now you have suburbs 20 or 30 miles from the city. The mines still are operating except now they are in the middle of residential communities. People who never would have paid attention to them before suddenly are aware of them.”
The association executive also noted that aggregates are not a consumer product for the most part, which reduces public awareness of the need for the material and appreciation for those who produce it. Residents don’t buy streets or schools, for example, though they pay for them through taxes and use them constantly. “They don’t think about the fact that 80 percent of concrete is aggregate and 92 percent of asphalt is aggregate.”
The Other Issue
Quarrying stone and gravel is important to the industry, but so is public funding of projects that consume the material. As much as 40 percent of aggregate is for construction of roads and bridges; when Congress couldn’t pass a federal highway program bill until two years after the old authorization bill expired, the highway construction industry — including the aggregate companies that supply it — was thrown for a loss.
When that happened between 2003 and 2005, noted Edwards, “the federal highway program just sort of stopped. During that period, it was impossible for states to do much of anything and the industry limped along for two years. It sort of wreaked havoc in the industry. Sales of aggregate didn’t decline, but it created a whole lot of uncertainty.”
State budgeting practices also create uncertainty, John Henriksen said. Henriksen is executive director of the Illinois Association of Aggregate Producers.
He decried the diversion of highway user fees for non-road purposes, a practice that the 110-member association and other business groups in the state said has increased under the administration of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Members of the Blagojevich administration denied that transfer of funds is any different now than before.
Lobbying of the state legislature has rolled back some diversions, but the governor’s critics point out that the transfers annually claim hundreds of millions of dollars in road funding.
“The state road program has dropped precipitously due to the diversions, in central and southern Illinois especially,” Henriksen said. “Our members have had a hard time because of the tremendous peaks and valleys in the state road program. It needs to be a lot more stable.”
Illinois aggregate companies work on community relations to resolve mining access and expansion problems, Henriksen said. “We’re well aware of it, we’re all over it. But the diversions are harder for us to control. It is hard to keep the governor’s hand out of the road fund.”
Bruce Mason, who retired to Arizona after 25 years in the aggregate industry in Indiana, said stable funding of public works was a problem for aggregate producers and highway construction companies during his career. “Back in the ’70s, funding was very serious. Roads were in need of repair but, regardless of location, people were reluctant to tax themselves to do it.”
The former Indiana Mineral Aggregates Association director said the funding problem comes back to education, to “convincing the public that they need aggregates. They don’t understand the need. They’re not primary buyers and they only worry about things they purchase.”
He advocates a higher level of classroom interaction that can tie aggregates to societal progress and dispel the “old wives tales” about mining. “Students must understand at an early age that they need this [aggregate] business to maintain a level of civilization,” Mason said.
Edwards of the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association sees wider public acceptance coming to the industry, albeit in sometimes-tiny increments. “We do one inch at a time,” he said of the association’s long-term education and advocacy planning, “and it’s a big country.” CEG