Hunger for rock eating up supply of sand, gravel
Seattle Times business reporter
DUPONT, Pierce County — Mammoth front-end loaders chomp 30-ton bites of gravel from the steep face of Glacier Northwest's giant open-pit mine, working 16 hours a day to help feed the region's insatiable hunger for rock.
Most of what's mined here will be mixed with water and cement to make concrete. Sand and gravel from DuPont has been used to build Qwest Field, the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Sound Transit's light-rail tunnel under Beacon Hill and the foundations of thousands of homes.
No other mine in the country produces more sand and gravel: 5.5 million tons in 2006, according to Glacier Northwest's Scott Nicholson. That's more than 10 percent of all the aggregates — sand, gravel and crushed stone — mined in Western Washington annually, federal estimates suggest.
But it won't last forever. Even if current expansion plans are approved, Nicholson says, the mine will be depleted in 14 or 15 years.
Demand for sand and gravel is surging as the Puget Sound area grows, industry leaders say. But old mines are being depleted more rapidly than new pits are coming on line.
Where will the region's sand and gravel come from after pits like DuPont run out of rock?
It's a question the aggregates industry has been posing with growing urgency lately.
"We have way less permitted resources than we need," says state geologist Ron Teissere of the state Department of Natural Resources.
Shipping rock in from elsewhere would mean higher construction costs, clogged highways and wasted energy, says Bruce Chattin, executive director of the Washington Aggregates and Concrete Association.
The industry's campaign to warn of a future shortage comes, not coincidentally, as two sand-and-gravel companies, Glacier Northwest and Fred Hill Materials, are mired in drawn-out permit battles to mine big deposits on Maury Island and Hood Canal, respectively.
Foes of those projects say the environmental costs outweigh any potential benefits, and that the industry is using scare tactics to boost support for the controversial proposals.
But even they acknowledge the region needs new sources of gravel, sand and stone to accommodate growth. The question isn't whether to permit new pits, they say, but where.
The state Growth Management Act was supposed to make the siting and development of new mines more predictable and less contentious. The industry says the law hasn't lived up to that promise — and some environmentalists agree.
"There are probably some improvements we could make," says Heath Packard, policy director for Audubon Washington.
Mainstays have closed
Evidence for the aggregates industry's crisis scenario is mostly anecdotal. There are no public records of how much material individual mines produce, where it's used or how much remains in the ground. Sand-and-gravel companies are notoriously tight-lipped about such matters.
Over the past decade, however, some big lowland mines that were regional mainstays have closed after running out of gravel and sand.
A golf course now covers much of the huge pit at Steilacoom that produced much of the region's aggregates for a century. Most of Rinker Materials' Everett quarry, which once accounted for 40 percent of Snohomish County's sand and gravel, has been reclaimed for ballfields and an industrial park.
Mike Lee, president of Issaquah's Lakeside Industries, an asphalt producer, says pits in Kent and Monroe that his company has mined for years are nearly used up.
Some big new mines have opened this decade. But they are mostly in the Cascade foothills, far from much of the market.
"Closer in, everything — even as far out as Monroe — is close to being depleted," says DNR's Teissere.
There's plenty of sand and gravel buried under the Puget Sound basin's soils: The glacier that retreated 10,000 years ago left behind some of the richest deposits in the country.
Tapping those deposits is what's problematic. "No one wants a gravel pit in their backyard," Nicholson says.
Homes now sit atop some gravel deposits, and subdivisions have crept close to others. Permits can take a decade to obtain.
"What's next?" Lee asks of future aggregate sources. "Are you talking about Cle Elum? It does have a dramatic effect on construction costs and road maintenance costs."
Distance matters in this business: A 25-mile trip in a dump truck can double the price of a ton of gravel, Chattin and Teissere say.
Barging is much cheaper, they add. That's how gravel and sand from the proposed Maury Island and Hood Canal mines would get to market.
If the region must rely on more distant sources, that could mean higher prices for consumers — both private and public, Chattin says. Half the aggregates produced in Washington are used for roads and other transportation projects, according to a 2003 industry report.
Tom Baker, the state Department of Transportation's materials engineer, says the agency's highway contractors already are paying more for rock because it's coming from farther away.
The 1990 Growth Management Act requires local governments to identify "mineral resource lands" of long-term commercial significance and protect them from incompatible development. It hasn't always worked that way in practice, Chattin says.
Some counties, for instance, have designated only existing mines. "The theory is that, when [the industry] needs more, they'll come and apply," says Tim Trohimovich, planning director for the anti-sprawl group FutureWise. "The problem is that by the time they do, there are subdivisions next door."
Because local governments get no tax revenue from mining, and proposed pits almost always upset the neighbors, "all the incentives and political pressures are pushing them" to avoid designating lands for aggregate mining, says Doug Peters, a senior planner with the state agency that oversees the Growth Management Act.
Local governments also are handicapped by lack of information — Teissere says his office hasn't had the money to map deposits in most counties.
Gov. Christine Gregoire's staff met late last year with industry leaders to discuss their concerns. The upshot? "This deserves a closer look," says Keith Phillips, a senior Gregoire aide.
Over the next few months, he says, state officials will try to get a better handle on demand, and look at ways to improve how mineral-resource lands are designated.
Another meeting is scheduled later this month.
Chattin says the industry wants money appropriated for the DNR to map aggregate resources in every county. He also talks about streamlining the permitting, but says it's too soon to get specific.
The Growth Management Act recognizes "essential public facilities" — crucial regional projects such as airports, jails and sewage-treatment plants that everyone agrees are necessary, but that no one wants as a neighbor — and limits local governments' power to deny them. Maybe it's time to treat aggregate deposits similarly, Chattin suggests.
But Amy Carey, of Preserve Our Islands, the Maury Island opposition group, says the industry's talk of a looming regional crisis rings hollow when, according to federal estimates, Washington gravel pits barge about 3 percent of their annual production out of state.
And the industry's focus for the future isn't solely on local needs: the proposed Fred Hill mine on Hood Canal plans to ship gravel to California as well as Puget Sound.
But Chattin says California serves as a warning. Last year the California Department of Conservation reported much of that state is running short of locally produced aggregates.
British Columbia quarries already are shipping sand and gravel to San Francisco. A ton costs twice as much there as in Seattle.
"If we're going to not be California, we should look ahead and develop a business plan," Chattin says.
Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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