Like every well-written story, the quarry business has a defined beginning, middle and end. You could even call the business owner(s) a protagonist for the leading character or one of the major characters. The dictionary definition of protagonist includes: (1) the main figure or one of the most prominent figures in a real situation; and (2) an advocate or champion of a particular cause or idea. M. J. O’Brien, Jr., fits the bill. As President and CEO of Salem Stone Corporation, he directs a family-owned aggregate producer operating 15 quarries in Virginia and North Carolina.
“Salem Stone and its group operate on the basic premise that we are in the people business first and foremost and the mining business secondarily. Additionally, this philosophy drives our culture to include safety, environmental stewardship of the lands we mine and the involvement of the surrounding communities which are the homes of our neighbors, employees and customers. Our continued growth and success over the past five decades is due entirely to the dedication and loyalty of our fellow employees who have helped us to build this business on the foundation blocks of uncompromising integrity and service to our customers.” [salemstonecorp.com]
The work is heavy, dusty and dirty. The equipment is astronomical in size and cost. The earth does not easily give up its rock. After all, its investment in development can be measured in millions and billions of years. But, the quarry industry is truly priceless in the world for its contribution, i.e., rock, to myriad industries and uses on the planet. Stone is used in some way in almost every industry, including, but not limited to:
- food processing
- construction, roads and bridges
- medical devices
- sporting goods
- and even more …
The Beginning / Business Plan
Akin to a story, fiction or non-fiction, every good quarry has a beginning, a lead, a concept, even a dream. In the business world, quarries included, it all starts with a business plan. Commercial endeavors carry high stakes with one’s family and social life, finances, time, stress and emotional and physical well-being. Whatever the quarry dream, writing a business plan is the place to see if it makes sense in its entirety – from mission statement and company organization to sales and marketing strategies, competitive edge, personnel and equipment requirements, environmental concerns, funding and financial projections.
One of the first determinations for any business is the market. Is there a strong target market and market share availability for your product? Since rocks are used in almost every industry, the response can be a resounding yes. That’s the demand side. The supply side is endless. “We will probably never run out of rock or stone,” states consulting geologist Alan Gensamer. “The amount used for human endeavors is infinitesimally small compared to the volume of the earth’s crust. The U.S. has been almost totally mapped by geologists, so state geologic surveys and the U.S. Geologic Survey are good starting points. Geologic mapping in detail will pinpoint the area of interest. Magnetic, electromagnetic and seismic surveys can be done depending on the type of rock.”
Because digging into the earth for rock involves massive equipment and can create major land disruption, all kinds of environmental impacts and practical management issues must be addressed before the first spoon hits the ground. These include, but are not limited to:
- feasibility of market share
- land, buy or lease
- survey for rock existence
- licenses and permits
- site access
- noise and dust
- nearby residences or communities
- streams and water
- native vegetation
- wildlife habitats
- methods of extraction
- environmental rehabilitation
- worker training and safety
- explosives handling and permits
- equipment and supplies
- distribution strategy
The Middle / Daily Operations
Most business experiences fall in the middle ~ after the beginning and, ideally, way before the end. The day in and day out challenges of managing a quarry operation align with most commercial endeavors: staffing, training, equipment maintenance and repair, processing orders, customer relations, bookkeeping, marketing and more. The quarry operation stands out from the crowd for all the environmental regulations, as well as blasting and the need for highly specialized skills with explosives and very heavy equipment.
“Explosives are only one way rocks are ‘harvested’,” says Gensamer. “If there is no concern for keeping the rock ‘whole’ (as in countertops), then vertical holes are drilled, loaded with heavy explosives, and the rock is blasted apart. The ‘benches’ result from how deep the drill holes are when the blasting occurs. The dimensions of the benches can be designed to fit the extraction process, truck size, loading method, rock stability, etc. If rock integrity is a concern, holes are also drilled, but the explosives are controlled in size (much like the implosion of buildings) so that the rock is cracked and not shattered. In the granite quarries of the Northeast, they drill vertical holes and split the rock using metal wedges and ‘feathers’ pounded in with sledgehammers. Slate and softer rocks can be cut by cable saws that are like huge band saws. Giant diamond saws are even used in some places. The method of extraction depends on the characteristics of the particular rock, the ultimate use, and the most efficient method of extraction.”
Some quarries blast as often as three days a week, while others might do it once or twice a month. Likewise, some quarry businesses subcontract the blasting and many employ blasting experts and control all the materials and activities. This not only gives the company complete control and blasters whenever needed, it also places the company in the unique position of accepting all responsibility, communicating with neighbors and communities and being sensitive to the environment and people. Like Salem Stone Corporation cited above, most quarry companies consider themselves in the people business first. One example of a blast would use 6.5-inch diameter vertical holes, sink explosives 50 feet deep with rocks above the blasting material and place them around 15 to 20 feet apart. Designed correctly, this would break and push a significant amount of rock forward a couple hundred feet.
Small quarry operations may use hydraulic breakers, jackhammers or ECOBUSTTM, an innovative expanding controlled demolition product. Designed for boulder breaking and rock splitting, ECOBUSTTMis a popular choice among homeowners and DIY folks who need to clear large rocks from their property. Occasionally, a big operation needs to use a mechanical breaker when a rock is close to something else, but for large quarries, there are not many options outside of blasting to move some 100 tons of rock per day.
Once loosened, massive front-end loaders move into place to fill, lift and transport the mess to dump trucks or crushing, sorting and sifting sites within the quarry. Because rock is heavy and time is money, there is an inclination not to move it one inch farther than necessary to begin its transformation into a final product with aggregate topping the list. Large rocks may be pushed aside for splitting again before moving. Specially trained and licensed operators are required to manage most all of the equipment in a quarry.
“The biggest new thing in the past few years is the increased use of drones and automation,” says Erik Westman, PE, Ph.D., Professor and Department Head at Virginia Tech’s Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering. The department is globally recognized for its instruction and cutting edge research. “Over the past 10 years, more than 20% of all U.S. mining engineers have graduated from Virginia Tech, and about 40% of our grads go to work at aggregate quarries, so we are heavily engaged with the industry,” he adds. “Quarry operations are now starting to regularly use drones for surveying things like the condition of the high wall face so they can optimize the blast design. Some quarries lease drones and others buy them and hire a licensed operator. Also, there’s more consolidation with big companies with larger resources buying the small mom-and-pops.”
The hum-drum of daily operations in the quarry is not labor-intensive, as most of the crushing, sorting and screening tasks are automated and controlled at a bank of computers by skilled technicians who can manage myriad conveyor tracks and water suppression systems and monitor cameras. Heavy duty dump trucks roll in and out regularly, loading up and hauling aggregate to construction sites and road projects. Behind the scenes, of course, is the administrative and support staff processing orders, billing, managing paperwork and management executives responsible for overall business compliance, marketing, public relations and vision. And then there’s the little DIY guy or gal who drives in with a rusty wagon behind a Ford Explorer that looks like a toy on the grounds where front end loader tires top the roof of the towing vehicle. Comparatively speaking, s/he pays for and departs with a baby load of pea gravel for a home walkway or to reduce mud around a barn.
The End / Reclamation
Closing a quarry is not as simple as shutting a brick-and-mortar front door and taking the sign along with you at the end of the final day. For one, there is a large hole in the earth. In some cases where there are no hazards to the public, it might be just fine left to its own reclamation by Mother Nature. “Unlike strip mining for coal or ore, quarries have little or no waste material that must be reclaimed, and they are generally smaller in area,” Gensamer points out.
Quarries with the best configuration for water containment can become recreational lakes. This often occurs naturally when heavy machinery on the bottom of quarry punctures into the water table below and water naturally accumulates. It can remain stagnant and cold, and many a daredevil kid or teen has been hurt in an abandoned quarry lake. Three Oaks Recreation Area 50 miles northwest of Chicago is one stellar example, however, of making something beautiful. Vulcan Materials operated a quarry there for about 40 years. After two deep water lakes developed and the mining activity was complete, the company deeded 462 acres to the city of Crystal Lake. The waters were stocked with fish, and local fishing enthusiasts dubbed the place “Vulcan Lakes.” A $14-million quarry reclamation project was funded solely by city bonds, and today, this popular recreation spot offers swimming, boating, hiking, picnicking, pavilion rentals, stand-up paddleboarding and even scuba diving.
Other examples include Brownstone Park, an adventure park in Portland, Conn., which includes rock climbing, rappelling, cliff jumping and zip-lining. Quarry Falls or Civita in downtown San Diego is a former quarry transformed into a 225-acre planned development with parkland, residences and commercial sites. Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island, once a limestone quarry, draws more than a million visitors per year to view 55 acres of gardens and 900 bedding plant varieties. Possibly the most creative, stunning quarry re-use in the world is the InterContinental Shimao Shanghai Wonderland Hotel featuring 337 luxury guest rooms and suites with panoramic views of Shenkeng Quarry. It is slated to open this year and raises the bar on quarry renovation to an extraterrestrial adventure in overnight lodging.
Joanne M. Anderson is a Virginia-based freelance writer who grew up in Vermont close to marble and slate quarries. As children, she and her brother thought they struck gold when first spotting slate with iron pyrite embedded in it. www.jmawriter.com
Words: Joanne Anderson
Photos: Grafissimo, greenp, imagedepotpro, lubilub, lucamanieri, ollo
Most common quarries in the U.S. by quantity:
Misc rock, 251
Sandstone and quartzite, 197
Crushed stone largest producers by state:
Excerpt from: https://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/stone_crushed/crusmyb01.pdf
“Stone, Crushed” by Valentin V. Tepordei; domestic survey data and tables prepared by Susan M. Copeland, statistical assistant