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Between a Rock and a Hard Place : Cities Fight Encroachment, Leaving Mining Firms No Place to Go as Quarries Are Used Up : credits for both maps

January 25, 1988|KEITH BRADSHER | Times Staff Writer

After 64 years in production, a stretch of Lytle Creek in San Bernardino County has run dry--of rocks.

Since Calvin Coolidge's presidency, Fourth Street Rock Crusher has been digging up sand and gravel in its Lytle Creek quarry, combining them with cement at a nearby factory and shipping out the resulting concrete to build highways and houses. Now the sand and gravel have been exhausted. A small, nearby auxiliary mine is inadequate to supply the concrete plant's needs and will also be exhausted within seven years, said Ewald O. Burmeister, vice president and general manager.

Fourth Street has been shipping in sand and gravel from other mines, while trying for the past three years to open a new quarry in a neighborhood of Rancho Cucamonga, a planned city in eastern San Bernardino County. But residents there don't want the area to become the pits.

"This heavy industrial use is right in the middle of a large residential area. You sit here and wonder what the point is of doing any planning," Mayor Dennis L. Stout said.

Fourth Street's exhausted reserves and inability to develop new quarries are representative of a rising problem in Southern California and across the nation. In a textbook case of not-in-my-backyard sentiments, few cities are willing to allow the opening of new quarries or the expansion of old, worn-out mines into adjacent lots. But costs are high for transporting huge volumes of heavy rock. The resulting struggle between mining and community interests has raised difficult economic and environmental questions.

Sand, gravel and crushed stone, together known as aggregates, are basic to the construction industry. Sharply rising prices in the $7-billion aggregate business are reflected in the price of new homes and the level of taxation needed to pay for new roads and schools.

Long Hauls Are Common

Virtually every major city in the United States is running short of aggregate, said Valentin V. Tepordei, a mineral commodity specialist with the U.S. Bureau of Mines. Trucks haul aggregates as much as 150 miles to construction projects in Houston and New York, he said, while ships have recently begun carrying crushed stone to Texas from as far as Nova Scotia and even Scotland. U.S. firms are now developing quarries in Mexico.

"The moment you get close to a large metropolitan area, you start to have problems," Tepordei said.

Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley were built largely with sand and gravel from quarries in Irwindale and around Sun Valley. Both regions are approaching exhaustion. The 300- to 500-foot-thick gravel deposits in the San Gabriel Valley are among the richest in the world, but most are now covered with houses, said Michael J. Kerstetter, executive vice president and general manager for concrete and aggregates at Los Angeles-based CalMat, the nation's second-largest sand and gravel producer.

Al Davis, owner of the Los Angeles Raiders, hopes to move his team to a stadium that would occupy an empty CalMat pit in Irwindale.

No new quarries have opened in the greater Los Angeles area since the mid 1970s. Winning mining permits in areas adjacent to existing, depleted quarries has become so difficult that in Orange County alone, three major companies have shut down their operations in the past five years, said Robert R. Munro, manager of special services at Blue Diamond Materials. The company is the aggregate mining division of Sully-Miller Contracting, a Long Beach-based road builder.

Profits Jump Sharply

Trucks now carry sand and gravel more than 50 miles from Irwindale to San Clemente, said Jay W. Watkins, an industry consultant. "The fact that they're out (of aggregate) in Orange County is going to run us out sooner. . . . In eight to 10 years there won't be anything left around Irwindale," with the possible exception of CalMat reserves that could last longer, he said.

CalMat accounted for about 35% of the 58 million tons of aggregate mined in Southern California in 1986. Overall operating profits from its concrete and aggregates division roared to $94.6 million from $11.3 million in recessionary 1983 with the recovery of California's construction industry.

Yet the production of aggregates cannot easily be banished to rural, mountainous areas where there is no one to bother with a quarry's constant pall of dust and rolling thunder of breaking rocks. Sand and gravel are found where fast-moving current and ancient rivers slow down--typically at the base of mountain ranges, Tepordei said. Farmers and real estate developers compete with miners for flat expanses of land with alpine views.

Scarcity, together with rising energy, land and pollution-control costs, have pushed up the price of aggregates. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average cost of construction sand, gravel and crushed stone leaped 109.3% from 1975 to 1986. That compares to a 72.3% rise in the producer price index for finished goods and just a 37.6% rise in the broadest index for agricultural and mineral producer prices.

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