Sand? Mine!

Our insatiable need for concrete has led to destructive mining around the world. How can we do it better?

Published September 13, 2017

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I’m standing in the rain looking at a pile of rocks. This is not the kind of view that grabs most people. But for quarry manager Brian Buckley, the 100,000-tonne mound of gravel below us is exceptional. “It’s very high quality rock and very uniform,” he says. “It’s one of the best deposits I’ve seen in the world.”

We’re peering down from a walkway on top of the stacker belt, a conveyor currently pouring a river of wet gravel onto the 30-meter-high pile. Buckley is not alone in his admiration for the freshly washed rock. The aggregate mined here at Orca Quarry on northern Vancouver Island in British Columbia has been a vital ingredient in a bevy of high-profile construction projects on the west coast of North America: the new “spaceship” Apple headquarters under construction in Cupertino; the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge; and the 61-story Salesforce Tower, set to be the tallest building in San Francisco.

Orca Quarry is one of a handful of BC aggregate mines feeding the nearly insatiable desire for sand and gravel in major West Coast cities. One aggregate sustainability study for California alone predicted that by 2060, south San Francisco Bay, Orange County, and western San Diego County would each require around a billion tonnes of sand and gravel for construction—from sidewalks to bridges to office towers. Other areas, such as San Bernardino and the San Gabriel Valley, would need more than 700 million tonnes each.

Brian Buckley overlooks to Orca Quarry

Manager Brian Buckley looking over the sediment mining operation at Orca Quarry. Photo by Grant Callegari

“One of the challenges facing this region,” wrote San Diego’s regional planning agency in 2011, “is how to meet the increasing demand for aggregate at a time when the local supply is shrinking, while at the same time preserving communities and environmentally sensitive lands.”

Nearly every region on Earth faces the same challenge. In Sierra Leone and Morocco, beaches are being carried away (legally and illegally) in dump trucks; riversides all over India are ravaged for aggregate; and two dozen Indonesian islands have allegedly disappeared after being plundered by sand miners. Closer to home, gravel bars in West Coast salmon rivers have been scalped for aggregate, with occasionally catastrophic consequences—in one instance, killing two million Fraser River pink salmon fry by cutting off a spawning channel.

The relatively new Orca Quarry—which has worked with the local community—may provide an answer to an increasingly pressing global question: how is our urbanizing world going to supply cities and towns with aggregate without destroying itself?


Buckley, 62, has an easy-going smile and thinning gray hair currently hidden under a white hard hat. He knows rocks: he’s spent 42 years in the industry, working with quarries from Canada to Poland to South Africa. You might think that after four decades looking at sand and rocks would have lost its luster, but no. Buckley still loves everything about the aggregate business, right down to the smell. “I used to work in gravel pits when I was young,” he says, “and I could never get over the smell of the earth.”

From the top of the stacker belt, Buckley and I watch the quarrying in action. Two Caterpillar 637G tractor-scrapers crawl down the sloped working face of the pit. The scrapers are long, grasshopper-like machines that roll on 2.5-meter tires and have engines front and rear. As they descend the face, they shave off an even swath of gravel and sand into their 35-tonne bowls.

Furrows on the working face of the pit show where the tractor-scrapers have been working. An excavator moves sediment in the foreground

Furrows on the working face of the pit show where the tractor-scrapers have been working. An excavator moves sediment in the foreground. Photo by Grant Callegari

Looking east from our viewpoint—under low-slung stratus clouds about the same color as the gravel—I can just make out Malcolm and Cormorant Islands. Like Orca Quarry itself, both lie in traditional territory claimed by the Kwakwaka’wakw people. Polaris Materials, the quarry owner, began operations in 2007 after reaching benefit and ecological impact agreements with two Kwakwaka’wakw bands, the Kwakiutl and ‘Namgis First Nations. In a rare example of a resource operation building in profit-sharing with a local Indigenous community, the ‘Namgis actually share a 12 percent ownership stake in the quarry.

Buckley spells out for me what he means by the “quality” of the piles of gravel. The rock here—mostly basalt, with some granite mixed in—is hard and dense, some of the hardest and densest rock on the planet (its specific gravity averages about 2.88 if you know about that sort of thing). The uniformity of the deposit, he says, is another bonus. Only about 25 percent of the aggregate needs to be crushed into smaller pieces, making less work for crushing machines.

This is good for Orca’s owners—except that high density translates into high maintenance costs. Manganese-steel rock crusher liners that can last 10 years wear out in 400 hours. The Caterpillar scrapers that harvest the gravel have to be retrofitted so they don’t collapse under the weight, and the undercarriage of the 35-tonne bulldozer that roams the site regularly wears away. “We’ve replaced it five times,” Buckley says, “at [CAN] $50,000 a pop.”

The rock here is part of what’s called the East Cluxewe deposit: some 200-million-year-old stone that stayed mostly undisturbed until glaciers ground it off the landscape 10,000 years ago. After being tumbled mercilessly in meltwater rivers, it was washed into an underwater deposit near what is now Port McNeill. When the land rose out of the water after the last ice age, voila, it had morphed into a 40-meter-deep, three-kilometer-long deposit of well-rounded alluvial gravel and sand, conveniently located next to waters deep enough to accommodate bulk freighters. Polaris has shipped about 22 million tonnes of sand and gravel from Orca Quarry in the past 10 years, mostly to ready-mix concrete producers in California but at times to Hawai‘i or elsewhere in British Columbia. Marco Romero, founder and director of Polaris, once told a newspaper reporter with a laugh: “We love saying, ‘We sell sand in Hawai‘i.’”

To understand the value of Orca’s glaciofluvial material, you have to understand some of the intricacies of road and building construction. Rounded, river-worn glacial gravel like the pile Buckley has shown me is distinct from crushed stone. Crushed stone comes from hard rock quarries—where stone is drilled and blasted from bedrock or mountainsides, and then run through crushing machines—and is preferred for building roads. The sharp, angular pieces stick better to the asphalt binder and interlock well to make a stable road base.

Gravel produced by glaciation and river-tumbling, on the other hand, is preferred by building construction companies and the ready-mix concrete producers that supply them. (Concrete and cement are two different things. Cement is the powdered lime and clay that binds and hardens when mixed with water; it’s an ingredient in concrete, just like aggregate. Concrete is what you get when you mix cement with sand and rock.) You need less aggregate and less cement to make good concrete when using round, alluvial rock. It’s also less damaging. “If you’re pumping concrete up hoses to build a skyscraper,” says John Clinkenbeard, a geologist with the California Geological Survey, “you want that nice round rock, because the sharp stuff tears up your equipment.” River-worn gravel also has a nice look, making it attractive for high-end projects like luxury high-rises and corporate headquarters.

You may not have a geologist’s appreciation for sand and gravel, but unless you live in a remote cabin off-grid you are dependent on them. Aggregate, and the cement powder that binds it, is fundamental to modern society, almost on par with food and water.

A tractor-scraper or earthmoving machine

Tractor-scrapers, also called earthmoving machines, are used to remove sediment from the face of the mine. Photo by Grant Callegari

Up to 80 percent of the mass of concrete in sidewalks, foundations, and walls is made up of sand and gravel. Building a single detached home requires close to 400 tonnes of aggregate; a low-rise condominium could use 20 to 50 times that much. Asphalt used in roads and parking lots is 94 percent sand and gravel: two kilometers of a four-lane highway requires over 40,000 tonnes of aggregate. As historian Vaclav Smil, author of the 2013 book Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization, put it, “The most important material in terms of sheer mass in our civilization, is cement made into concrete.”

The global consumption statistics bear this out—and quickly get astronomical. After water, concrete is the second-most consumed substance on Earth. One 2016 estimate of the global aggregate industry for that year—called “a wild guess” by Jason Christopher Willett, Mineral Commodity Specialist with the US Geological Survey, since most countries don’t track data on aggregate sales—was 43 billion tonnes. That’s about the same weight as 130,000 Empire State Buildings, and worth an estimated US $350-billion.

In 2012, the world used enough concrete to wrap a 27 meter by 27 meter band around the equator; in that same year, China alone built 146,000 kilometers of roads. Increasing and rapid urbanization, particularly in countries like China and India, are causing demand to spike. For Smil, the most “stunning” fact he uncovered in his research was learning that in only three years—from 2011 to 2013—China used more cement powder than the United States used over the last century.

The Earth’s crust is made of rock, so finding aggregate is relatively easy; finding it in places where local residents won’t object to the noise of a quarry operation—and to a gaping hole in the landscape—is much more difficult. The equally challenging problem is transportation: getting it from the quarry to the worksite.


Rocks are heavy. Their upside and value is that—more so than wood, clay, or metal, at least—they last. As a result, humans have been enduring, or finding ways to overcome, the hernia-inducing labor involved in quarrying and moving stone for a long, long time. Around 4,500 years ago, Stonehenge’s large, 25-tonne sandstone blocks were transported 30 kilometers to their famed circle; the smaller “bluestones” (rhyolite or dolerite stones, up to two tonnes each) were quarried in Wales, 225 kilometers away, and transported either overland or by sea. That’s a long way to move rock using prehistoric technology. While it’s not certain that the builders of Stonehenge used rafts or boats, long-distance shipping of quarried rock has been around since at least 600 BCE, when the Greeks were importing marble from the island of Naxos to the temples at Delphi, just under 300 kilometers away. That was centuries before the Romans pockmarked Europe with quarries to build out their imperium. Shipping rock, whether slabs or gravel, is therefore an ancient workaround.

For Polaris’s Romero, the inspiration to join this long tradition of aggregate transport first struck in 1999. Romero lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, where Polaris Materials is headquartered. In the 1980s and ’90s, he oversaw projects at other Vancouver-based mining firms—Eldorado Gold and Ivanhoe Mines, among others. He started to explore the possibilities of aggregate mining only after hearing about a British company shipping aggregate from Sechelt, British Columbia, to California.

“When I heard that I did an about-face and thought, ‘This is surprising! How can you move such a low-value product so far and still have a business?’”

Romero researched the industry. At one point he flew to San Francisco and pulled up in his rental car at ready-mix concrete plants. “I told them, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about shipping in sand from Mexico. How can we help you?’ That was the initial idea.”

Sourcing Mexican aggregate didn’t work out, but from these meetings with concrete producers, Romero learned that sand and gravel sources close to San Francisco were depleting rapidly. To keep searching the west coast for an aggregate source made sense. While California has ample reserves of sand and gravel, the problem is moving it around, especially over land: aggregate is so heavy it can only be cost-effectively transported by trucks within a range of about 40 kilometers.

“Aggregate is a relatively low-value product that is extremely sensitive to transportation and logistics costs,” says Romero. “There is plenty of it around. What is much harder to find are resources that are near the urban centers where it is mostly consumed.”

Paradoxically, proximity of aggregate resources to urban areas is part of the problem, says Polaris CEO Kenneth Palko. Natural aggregate usually shows up as deltas and around floodplains. “These are generally flat areas where it’s best to build your houses. California has all kinds of sand and gravel, but they’ve built on top of a lot of it, or nearby. And nobody wants a quarry in their backyard.”

an overhead view of the Orca Quarry on Vancouver Island

The working pit at Orca Quarry is about 40 meters deep. Photo by Grant Callegari

This is true. In 2016, aggregate giant Lehigh Hanson abandoned a proposed quarry project in British Columbia’s Desolation Sound in the face of local opposition. Blasting operations at an existing hard-rock quarry on southern Vancouver Island were halted in 2015 by authorities when airborne rock—flyrock—landed near local parkland.

Resistance to new quarries is especially common in population-dense coastal California. Officials in Riverside County rejected an open-pit granite quarry north of San Diego in 2012 after a wide public outcry, including from the local Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians. The quarry would have produced 450 million tonnes of aggregate over 75 years. A proposal for a sand and gravel quarry south of San Jose was abandoned in 2014 after significant opposition, and the federal Bureau of Land Management terminated two controversial aggregate mining permits held by cement and ready-mix concrete producer Cemex for quarry operations in Santa Clarita north of Los Angeles in 2015.

The list goes on. Some applications are successful: one hard-rock aggregate quarry 200 kilometers east of Los Angeles recently had its permit to blast and crush rock extended by 55 years. But the rejections far outweigh the approvals, and there remains a net shortfall.

It’s a vexing problem for urban planners and construction companies. Existing quarries near cities run out of material. Proposals for new ones—within that cost-effective, 40-kilometer radius of urban centers—are quashed by residents who don’t want to live near blasting, drilling, or a parade of roaring gravel trucks.

Vexing problems are, of course, a business opportunity—if you have a solution. For Romero and Polaris, the solution was shipping. All they needed was a place to ship from, and with the help of local Indigenous partners they found it in the rich East Cluxewe deposit in Kwakwaka’wakw territory.

Beginning in the early 2000s, Romero and his partners solicited input from First Nations on all Polaris quarry proposals (including another as-yet undeveloped quarry called Eagle Rock, located in Alberni Inlet on Vancouver Island).

He admits that at first the bands were unsure of the company’s motives and wary of working with a mining company. The history of interactions between resource extraction companies and Indigenous groups in Canada is not exactly rosy. But, says Romero, they persevered. “We tried to get across that we were serious, we wanted to do things right, and we wanted to do it with them.”

Ultimately the bands agreed to work with Polaris, even participating in site fieldwork—prospecting, sampling, and mapping—to help the company identify sites with resource potential, as well as any culturally or environmentally sensitive areas.

Map showing location of Orca and Eagle Rock quarries

Illustration by Mark Garrison

For Debra Hanuse, the ‘Namgis chief at the time, the approach Polaris took with consultation was refreshing, and welcome, particularly to a community that suffers from high unemployment. “It was forward thinking on the part of Polaris, and really wonderful recognition of our title and rights interest in our land that brought us together.”

The relationship was inked into an agreement with both bands in 2002. The deal included employment targets. Orca Quarry would endeavor to hire 50 percent Indigenous workers—half ’Namgis, half Kwakiutl—and employ the other 50 percent from surrounding communities wherever possible. Now the quarry employs between 45 and 50 people, and according to Hanuse has stuck to its word in terms of hiring local talent.

Polaris has found its customers much farther afield, however—mainly in California, where Romero first began shaking hands with ready-mix concrete producers in the late ’90s. The company has even built its own three-hectare aggregate receiving terminal at the Port of Long Beach. “What we represent,” says Romero, “is a virtual quarry on the waterfront in downtown San Francisco or Los Angeles or Long Beach, because of our ships.”


Romero has the dealmaker’s gift with words. As a concept and a reality, his virtual quarry is an innovative and potentially more sustainable twist on the global aggregate trade. As demand continues to grow, ship-borne aggregate from responsibly run, less ecologically damaging operations could save habitats currently being decimated by ad hoc aggregate mining. This includes African beaches raided by midnight dump trucks and the scalped gravel bars of West Coast salmon rivers. What is needed, of course, are sites like Orca’s, places with plentiful aggregate far from urban centers, and near communities that need jobs and have access to tidewater. Add local ecological and social benefit agreements and you have a winning formula.

Whether there are enough potential sites that fit this criteria is, of course, a big question. There are likely to be far more in the less-populous northern coasts of the world—above 50° latitude, say—than there are in heavily populated southern coastlines.

Another consideration that demands more research is that golden metric in the global warming era: the carbon footprint. Clinkenbeard has noted that in California alone, trucks hauling sand and gravel for construction purposes make about 7.2 million trips per year, and consume roughly 178 million liters of diesel fuel. That’s half a million tonnes of CO2 emissions every year just to move rock around. Is a virtual quarry any better?

One of Polaris’s three vice presidents, Nicholas Van Dyk believes it is. He estimates that Orca Quarry produces less than half the greenhouse gases of land-based quarries in California, partly because they rely on ocean hauling instead of trucking. Also the uniformity of Orca’s rock means there’s less crushing involved, so less energy is burned. Plus, there is the relatively clean grid power produced in British Columbia.

Orca Quarry aggregate has been a vital ingredient in some high-profile projects, including the new “spaceship” Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California. Video by Maverick Media

A definitive emissions comparison between Orca’s shipping operation and traditional truck-hauling quarries has yet to be completed, however—and until it is, an argument for virtual quarries on low-emission grounds will remain somewhat short of convincing. But as more West Coast quarries get depleted and fuel costs rise, more attention will likely be paid to the virtual quarry approach—and its potential for slashing emissions. Going virtual, however, presents two main hurdles for West Coast quarries.

Number one: how do you load the ships? Most quarries are far from urban port facilities. Any new quarry that wants to leverage the ancient art of floating rocks would likely need to build—as Polaris did near its Orca site—a custom-made ship-loader that can serve the big self-unloader bulk freighters, each of which can carry up to 70,000 tonnes of sand and gravel.

Building this kind of facility takes serious up-front money. And for an industry that relies on slender margins, getting investors to stake the needed infrastructure is a challenge, whether the demand scenario exists or not. The positive flip side for stakeholders is that once a quarry is in place, dividends can pay out over generations. Polaris estimates that Orca Quarry has another 100 million tonnes of aggregate reserves; the planned Black Bear hard rock quarry adjacent to Orca has up to 330 million additional tonnes. Even at double the annual tonnage that Polaris is shipping out, that’s 75 years worth of aggregate exports.

Here it’s worth noting that the 100,000-tonne pile of gravel I saw on my tour with Buckley is only worth about CAN $2.75-million. That’s not very much money for such a big pile, but that’s the nature of the aggregate business: low prices, big volume. This in itself is another paradox of the rock and gravel trade. Like water, it is valuable and indispensable, but it continues to be one of the cheapest bulk commodities there is.

Brian Buckley stands on a walkway in front of the stacker belts at Orca Quarry

Brian Buckley stands on a walkway in front of the stacker belts. Photo by Grant Callegari

Another big hurdle to shipping rocks and sand to distant cities that need it—at least for American operations—is an esoteric piece of maritime legislation called the Jones Act. The act requires that anybody shipping between two points in the United States must use a ship that is built and registered in the United States, with an American crew on board paying US taxes. It was passed to prevent the US shipping fleet from being whittled away by foreign competitors, and to ensure an auxiliary force in case of war. The effect is that a foreign ship cannot deliver goods from Seattle to San Diego; only an American ship is allowed to do that.

But because Orca is in Canada and Polaris is a Canadian firm, they can use a foreign-flagged vessel with a foreign crew that will work for lower wages. It’s commonplace practice and one that has worked in Polaris’s favor since their geologists discovered the East Cluxewe deposit across the border in Canada. Whether you appreciate the foreign-vessel solution or not, it has helped create a workable economic model for Polaris, and for their ‘Namgis and Kwakiutl partners.


Orca Quarry is not impact-free, of course. On land leased from a timber company, it has dug out a massive, 40-meter-deep pit. But the site is well away from the Cluxewe River, and unlike mining operations that can leach heavy metals or even cyanide from wastewater tailings ponds, aggregate mining has little impact on freshwater and marine ecosystems.

Hanuse says that job creation and limited ecological impacts were two of the main considerations for her people in approving the Orca operation. “Our responsibility as stewards is what drives our review of any potential project in our territory. We don’t want to become involved in anything that could harm our environment or in particular fish habitat because that’s extremely important to ’Namgis people.”

Tractor-scraper at Orca Quarry

One of the tractor-scrapers at Orca Quarry. Photo by Grant Callegari

When they were satisfied that the quarry wouldn’t create toxic tailings ponds, and that Polaris’s land reclamation plans were clear and straightforward, they went ahead.

As it turns out, the quarry also made some good-neighbor gestures, remediating an old garbage dump and funding an enhancement program for endangered abalone. When Polaris built their Orca Quarry ship-loading dock, they compensated by creating a new sub-tidal granite reef, and seeding it with 1,000 northern abalone to revive the formerly abundant population in the bay. Whether these gestures offset the impacts of the bulk freighter traffic now coming through the area—over 40 ships per year—is difficult to say.

One thing is certain: the demand for aggregate will continue to grow.

If the sustainably managed, community-supported virtual quarry model Romero has helped to pioneer doesn’t catch on, something else that reduces our ever-growing ecological footprint will have to. Maybe we abandon asphalt roads altogether in favor of rapid transit tracks. Or slash concrete use by reverting to wood buildings—homes, condos, even mass-timber high-rises.

The ancient problem was how to move rocks. The modern problem, as cities suck up vast amounts of natural resources, is how to move enough of them without causing more social and ecological havoc.