Mega operation relies on river to transport aggregate

By |  March 6, 2017

Up or down the river the aggregate goes.

The aggregate moves along the Ohio River to as far east as Pittsburgh and as far west as Mount Vernon, Indiana, originating from Mulzer Crushed Stone’s Cape Sandy Quarry in Leavenworth, Indiana.

In all, about 4.5 million tons of aggregate depart this operation each year. Every stone that leaves begins its journey on the Ohio River, which Mulzer regularly utilizes over an 846-mile stretch. The company also relies on the Kanawha River, a tributary to the east that gives it access to the market in Charleston, West Virginia.

“The river is the best way in and out,” says Ken Mulzer Jr., company president. “There is no population base where this quarry is. So we almost think of ourselves as much of a transportation company as we do an aggregate producer, because we have to transport our product many miles to the markets we’re participating in.”

No trucks, just boats

A view of Plant No. 2 at Cape Sandy Quarry. Photo courtesy of Mulzer Crushed Stone

Mulzer Crushed Stone primarily serves the construction stone and scrubber stone markets from Cape Sandy, reaching a number of customer terminals along the Ohio and six of its own terminals along the Kanawha. But long before aggregate products reach destinations across five states, they’re prepared for shipment here at Ohio River mile marker 674.

Mulzer specifically prepares shipments at two docks, and it regularly puts both to use. When visited, a pair of Euclid rigid frame dump trucks took turns dumping aggregate into a hopper at Cape Sandy’s upper dock. Material was then conveyed directly onto a barge.

Mulzer has the option, however, to wash material at its upper dock.

“There is a wash screen just on the other end of a head pulley that washes the stone over a screen before it goes out on the barge,” says Mulzer, who adds that the company washes asphalt and concrete stone within this particular plant. “The water from washing is all captured in a sediment pond system so the dirty sediment water doesn’t go into the river.”

Regardless of whether material is washed, hopper barges or deck barges are the recipients of the material coming off the conveyor belt here at the upper dock. According to Mark Parr, who manages the river operation at Cape Sandy, a hopper barge can be loaded in just over an hour. The capacity of a hopper barge is about 1,650 tons, Parr says.

The operation also utilizes deck barges, which are loaded at the upper dock and at a second dock just down river. Deck barges can handle about 1,300 tons and they’re typically filled in about an hour, according to Parr.

Of course, a quarry that delivers 100 percent of its aggregate products by river requires a considerable number of barges. For Mulzer, 98 barges are put to use in Cape Sandy’s fleet.

Mulzer loads 15 barge tows because the locks and dams in its region of the Ohio River navigation system are designed to handle that number, Parr says. It takes 45 barges to make a complete trip, he adds, as 15 are being unloaded, 15 are in transit, and 15 are at a quarry being loaded.

Boats are essential to the operation, as well. The company relies on two of its own boats at Cape Sandy. One is Miss Sandy, a 52-ft. x 22-ft. towboat built in 1990. The other is Alvin M, a towboat of equal size that was built in 1987.

The boats are essential to the company’s overall operations, as 40 percent of Mulzer’s sales volume can derive from Cape Sandy in a given year. Business at Cape Sandy has been relatively steady in recent years, Mulzer adds, mainly because of the markets the company serves.

“We went through the 2009-2010 period when everyone was off 30 percent-plus, but we were off maybe 10 percent,” he says. “That’s not to say we went through that period unscathed, but we did not experience these huge drops that the rest of the country experienced. The markets we serve don’t get the extreme peaks, but we also don’t get deep valleys. So our volumes are pretty steady.”

Coal offers Mulzer a commodity to transport on return trips.

“[The coal] comes to power plants down in our region,” Mulzer says. “We clean the excess coal out of [barges], reload it with limestone and then ship it back into Charleston, West Virginia, and [northern] Ohio.”

Once boats return to Cape Sandy, they can be back on the river within a couple of hours, Parr adds.

“When [barges] leave the cleanout area they come up to the loading docks,” he says. “We’ll load them with whatever size product needs to be met. They’ll go from there into the fleets down below, where they’re staged and ready for the towing companies to pick them up. On our company barges, we hardwire the loads and get the tow ready so when our line boat arrives, they drop our empties, put out their gear on the loaded tow, face up to their loads and they’re out.”



Operations

This procedure will likely remain in place for years to come at Cape Sandy, as decades of reserves remain.

“We have right around 2,000 acres here that we own, and we have probably affected about 600 of it,” says Mulzer, whose Cape Sandy operation was established in 1963. We have more than 50 years of reserves left. It’s all minable depending on overburden ratio and the economics.”

Mulzer even mines underground at Cape Sandy, launching that aspect of the operation in 2005.

“We went underground because of scrubber stone,” Mulzer says. “That is solely a scrubber stone ledge high in calcium.”

Photo by Kevin Yanik

Specifically, the operation went underground to keep its volumes of scrubber stone and construction stone in balance.

“If, at times, the construction market doesn’t support enough construction sales to justify the scrubber [stone] market, your core comes out of balance,” Mulzer says. “What happened was we had maximized the surface tons of scrubber stone that we have here to balance with the construction tons we were selling. The construction market is what it is. You can’t make a construction market. So for us to go out and bid more scrubber stone contracts, we have to have a ledge we can go to at any given time. So we went underground.

“It’s basically an upside down wedding cake,” he adds. “As you mine it you have ledges exposed. And if you sell too much scrubber stone then it gets buried underneath the construction stone that’s not moving as fast. So there’s a sequence you have to [follow].”

In some senses, the underground operation is an entity of its own.

“The guys who work down there love it,” Mulzer says. “They don’t want to come to the surface. It’s 52 degrees year-round no matter what it is outside. You would think nobody wants to go work underground. Well, the guys here love working underground. They really don’t like being outside.”

Mulzer describes the underground operation as a room-and-pillar mine. Conventional 60-ton trucks pair with WA600 loaders, he says.

“We don’t need specialized underground mining equipment,” he says. “The only thing specialized we have is our drill. It’s a double-boom horizontal drill, so we’re drilling horizontally instead of vertically.”

In addition to the underground operation, Mulzer operates in four pits across the Cape Sandy Quarry. Two plants run regularly, and a third contributes as needed.

That third plant comes in handy due to the sheer volume Cape Sandy produces. Four blasts typically take place each day at Cape Sandy, Parr says. The operation also strives to have 700,000 tons of inventory on hand because it serves five states whose product specifications vary.

“We have such a huge inventory because we have to have a variety of product,” Mulzer says.


Origins and values

Mulzer Crushed Stone clears excess coal from barges before transporting them back along the river filled with aggregate. Photo by Kevin Yanik

Ken Mulzer Jr., president of Mulzer Crushed Stone, represents the third generation of the company whose roots trace to road construction.

Arnold, Roland and Edgar Mulzer founded the small construction company that evolved into Mulzer Crushed Stone. The company opened its first quarry in 1947 in Eckerty, Indiana, with a definitive purpose.

“They were doing work for INDOT (Indiana Department of Transportation) throughout the state pouring concrete,” Mulzer says. “They had to mix their stone and sand on site to make their concrete, so they had to buy all their products. INDOT said, ‘Those guys are pretty good. Have you ever thought about starting a quarry?’”

Now, Mulzer Crushed Stone operates six quarries, four ready-mix plants and three hot-mix asphalt plants, employing 525 people across locations. The company still very much has a family feel, Mulzer says, and that feeling is one the Mulzer family has impressed onto employees over the years.

“We are very proud of our values and the culture that we have here,” Mulzer says. “Our strength is our people and our culture. It goes back to our values of family, team, customers and community. That’s what’s formalized in writing now, but back when it was not formalized that is how my grandfather and [his] brothers ran things when they started. The culture has passed down from generation to generation, not only to the ownership but also to the people who come to work here every day.”

Mulzer references Kim Hall, administrative assistant, as an employee whose family has embraced the company culture.

“Kim’s father-in-law worked and retired from here,” he says. “Her husband works here now. One of her sons works here, and her next son wants to come work here. Our atmosphere is the families that work together here.”

Mark Parr, a 38-year employee who manages the river operation at Cape Sandy, echoes that sentiment.

“My dad worked for the company, and now my sons are working here, too,” Parr says. “ It’s steady work year-round, and in all the years I’ve been here I’ve not seen anyone get laid off.”

About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is the editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry magazine. Yanik can be reached at 216-706-3724 or kyanik@northcoastmedia.net.

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