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Grinding It Out

VALLEY BUSINESS | OIL AND MINING ENTERPRISES

Tensions Mount as New Homes Close In on Quarry Built in the 1950s

September 19, 2000|MICHAEL P. LUCAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CANYON COUNTRY — The workers at Curtis Sand & Gravel at times wonder aloud if the houses overlooking their nearly half-century-old quarry are harbingers of changing times.

"We all realize this isn't a long-term situation here," conceded Jason Curtis, the lanky 25-year-old yard-rock plant supervisor and scion of the family business where 60 workers scoop up the bone-white Santa Clarita River bottom during the dry season and grind it into more than $10-million worth of construction materials every year.

"But this is my life," Curtis added, swinging into his pickup truck to lead a tour of the bustling 185-acre quarry and cement-mixing plant.

"When I come to work I feel like I'm coming home. We'll just keep on doing it as long as we can."

There's an ironic tension between the quarry and its closest neighbors in a row of houses on Sequoia Road, a long tee shot from where rock processing machines sift and crunch gravel into piles, and where lumbering sand and cement trucks groan under multi-ton loads.

Residents in the 5-year-old Stonecrest tract don't care much for the mine's dust and appearance. "They're an eyesore and we don't want any more of them," said one Sequoia Road resident.

But the building boom that pushed the homes within sight of the gravel pits is still going strong. And every new house built requires 14 tons of aggregate, according to gravel industry figures--plus 314 more tons per house for infrastructure, including public buildings, streets, curbs and sidewalks.

That's why times are good at Curtis Sand & Gravel, said company President Ben W. Curtis, who runs the construction materials concern with his wife, Dianne, and two sons--the other one is Dale, 28, who supervises transportation at the bustling quarry.

Curtis pointed out another ridge farther east where even more houses within sight of the quarry are scheduled to be built, which promises to keep the work force busy.

The workers collect raw material from the river, grind and wash it into various grades of gravel and sand, fill daylong parades of 10-cubic-yard cement trucks and recycle more than 2,000 tons a day of demolition rubble into a marketable foundation material.

"It's a comfortable family business," said the lean and leathery Ben Curtis, a former Air Force band drummer, as he checked progress on a new $250,000 mixing plant under construction. The new batch plant is designed to nearly triple the company's cement output, to about 300 cubic yards per hour from the current 125 yards per hour.

The company has grossed $10 million to $11 million annually in recent years, Curtis said, but he expects moderate growth next year with the addition of mixing capacity. "But there isn't a lot of profit because of the high overhead," the elder Curtis added quickly.

While Santa Clarita residents debate proposed expansion of mining operations elsewhere in the city's sphere of influence, the low-tech operations at Curtis Sand & Gravel will continue much as they have since the early 1950s when, by local accounts, commercial mining of the Santa Clarita River began amid Southern California's epic post-World War II building boom.

In 1968, the elder Curtis' grandfather and two uncles moved a family construction company south from Spokane, Wash., to take over what was then A.E. Shirey & Son, acquiring several hundred then-remote acres that included a three-mile stretch of the riverbed.

Recently, Jason Curtis bounced over the gravelly dry stream bed amid the stark, largely vegetation-free landscape. On a stretch of river being worked, a single loader rumbled over the gravelly dunes, its driver expertly shaving away layers of gravel in a precise pattern to allow easy access to the entire quarry.

Debris from decades of dumping occasionally emerges from the river. Numerous old tires are scattered around the river. Workers occasionally uncover old appliances and even rusting car bodies. An entire Volkswagen turned up in a scoop of gravel not long ago. Employees said that when they show up for work on a Monday morning, they often find loads of household trash illegally dumped on the yard by passersby.

"People always ask us if we ever dig up human remains, but we never have, thank God," Jason said with a chuckle.

The work is often hot and grimy, but drivers who do most of the digging spend their days in surprisingly comfortable surroundings. The cabs in most of the trucks and heavy earthmovers are equipped with spacious seats, air conditioning, advanced sound systems and heating compartments to warm up coffee or a lunch.

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Most of the workers--including about 30 drivers--report more than an hour before sunrise, getting an early start both to beat the heat and to get materials in the daily pipeline to construction sites.

"My job is to be able to run every piece of equipment in the yard," Jason Curtis said, pointing out tractors, loaders, trucks of all sizes, the grinding machines and conveyor systems that transport the raw and finished products.

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