Washington’s rising aggregate supply crisis

By |  December 29, 2019
The cost of aggregate in Clark County, one of 39 counties in Washington state, has doubled in the last five years. Photo courtesy of Bo Storedahl

The cost of aggregate in Clark County, one of 39 counties in Washington state, has doubled in the last five years. Photo courtesy of Bo Storedahl

Clark County is situated in the southwest corner of Washington state along the Columbia River.

The county boasts a population of more than 400,000 people, a 13 percent increase from 2010 that makes it one of the fastest-growing counties in the state.

Despite a population on the rise and great potential for homebuilding, infrastructure expansion and other construction projects, Clark County’s aggregate supply is on the verge of a crisis.

Local aggregate producers feel threatened by the strenuous permitting process that restricts access to crucial reserves. They also worry about government regulations and community pushback that strain the supply of raw materials to contractors.

Contractors approached the Southwest Washington Contractors Association (SWCA) about six months ago with concerns about Clark County’s aggregate supply. Hearing their concerns, Andrea Smith, the marketing and government relations director for SWCA, formed the Commercial Industrial Construction Cooperative and commissioned a study along with a third party.

Through the study, SWCA learned that Clark County only has 21 years of aggregate reserves remaining. Compound this with a difficult permitting process – one with restrictions that challenge producers from accessing quality aggregate reserves and opening new sites – and the association and its stakeholders see major trouble brewing.

“The way our permitting process works, we will not have another mine or an extension of another mine up and running in the 21-year timeframe because it takes millions of dollars and many years to obtain a permit,” Smith says.

The challenges

According to a July 2019 article Smith wrote for the Vancouver Business Journal – one titled “Reduced supply of rock has real consequences on development” – producers often devote between seven and 10 years and upwards of $1 million to open a new quarry in the county.

Considering the investment, producers are hesitant to go through the process because they fear being denied.

“It’s too risky,” says Brent Rotschy, president of Rotschy Inc., a general contracting company. “Because the chance of hitting a roadblock is so great, nobody really wants to attempt it. To go through the process of permitting with the county, the state and other agencies and put together anything successfully is kind of slim.

“Why would you spend sometimes $4 million to have it all go up in smoke,” he adds. “The county’s permitting system has all quarries under conditional use, so an applicant for permitting really doesn’t have many assurances of anything when applying.”

Rotschy, who owns the permits to a quarry and sand and gravel pit that he leases to Bo Storedahl, a local aggregate producer, stresses that the county really needs a new aggregate source. Unfortunately, because of the permitting challenges there, few are willing to risk opening a new site.

Jerry Sauer, the owner of Columbia Rock Products, is, however, close to opening a new site on a heavy industrial piece of land. According to Sauer, opening the site in a heavy industrial area means the company didn’t leap over the typical permitting hurdles.

Jake Main of Columbia Rock Products, however, does not expect the remaining reserves to sustain the area’s aggregate demand going forward.

“If you look at reserves accessible over the next five years, the majority sit on one site owned by one producer that is currently producing but can’t even access the reserves,” says Main, who serves as operations manager at Columbia Rock Products.

So the rock is there, but pushback from the community and hurdles from the permitting process make it difficult to reach.

“The amount of rock we have in the area is tremendous,” Sauer says. “The amount we can access is minimal.”

About the reserves

With southwest Washington quarries working through permitting, producers are struggling to provide enough material to keep up with project demand. Photo courtesy of Bo Storedahl

With southwest Washington quarries working through permitting, producers are struggling to provide enough material to keep up with project demand. Photo courtesy of Bo Storedahl

Storedahl, who handles aggregate sales at J.L. Storedahl & Sons, currently operates the Mountain Top Quarry. When existing reserves among active resources began to dwindle, J.L. Storedahl & Sons looked for a solution to meet the county’s demand.

“Since aggregate resources aren’t renewable, there is obviously an hourglass on availability to the county,” he says. “We’ve been watching that hourglass for the past 15 years with efforts during that time to expand on existing resources, as well as permit new resources. Unfortunately, these efforts have been met with strong opposition that have created pretty substantial hurdles.”

Accessing reserves on a quarry’s property is a difficult process because of conditional-use permits employed by the state. These permits come with a list of approved conditions that present challenges when producers look to expand their current footprint.

Rotschy, for example, details an instance when Storedahl wanted to move an overburden pile to an already owned piece of property adjacent to the quarry. Because this new piece of land wasn’t on Rotschy’s original permit, the producer had to go through a new permitting process to access its own land.

When Storedahl went to the county he was told to get a zoning overlay, provide a traffic study and hold a public hearing. All of this just to move material onsite.

Because Storedahl had to go through so much work to move an overburden pile, he decided to go through the entire permitting process so the land could be mined in the future – something that shouldn’t have been necessary, Rotschy says.

“It turned into a full-blown permit,” he says. “It started as just wanting to move dirt and turned into a massive permitting issue.”

The difficult process of reaching quality rock reserves – or even moving a stockpile – is creating challenges downstream, as well.

Restricting the process

 A view of the Mountain Top Quarry in Clark County, Washington. The county, which sits just eight miles north of Portland, Oregon, is the second-fastest-growing county by population in the state. Photo courtesy of Bo Storedahl

A view of the Mountain Top Quarry in Clark County, Washington. The county, which sits just eight miles north of Portland, Oregon, is the second-fastest-growing county by population in the state. Photo courtesy of Bo Storedahl

According to Storedahl, acquiring a permit can be a three-year process or even a 15-year endeavor. He’s learned from experience that conditions are often tied to a permit – ones that hinder production and the supply of aggregate to the market.

“These conditions include limits to hours of operations,” Storedahl says. “In one instance, [they] prevented the quarry from opening before 8 a.m. This often doesn’t put rock on the job until 9 a.m. and it puts a very big burden on the industry that relies on this material.”

One major condition hampering producers and contractors is “load counts” or “trip quotas.” These restrictions limit the amount of trucks that can be loaded at a quarry and carried to a jobsite.

In other words, they limit an operator’s business.

“A previous producer I worked with has a trip quota that says you could only have a truck leave every three minutes,” Main says. “Restricting the amount of trucks that can leave your site is the county telling you how much business you can do.”

In some cases, producers may limit the type of trucks that can come to a site. These smaller trucks, often used for residential projects, are forced to go to a reload yard to get material for a job.

Doing this, Rotschy says, means paying more for already handled material.

According to Smith, a good number of construction projects are underway in the county. With some quarries working through permitting, producers are struggling to provide enough material to keep up with the projects.

“It’s difficult to meet demand when one mine supplies 90 percent of the rock in the county, especially when they only have 200 trucks come out a day,” she says.

The limitations also stem from community pushback on truck traffic. Community groups, in fact, are often the top challenge producers face.

“The challenge comes from the anti-mining culture that I believe many operators through the country experience,” Storedahl says. “That culture rears its ugly head during the early stages of the application process. Citizens show up to protest during a pre-application stage before they really even understand the proposal. Unfortunately, the first answer we always hear is ‘no’ and the not in my backyard mentality.”

Generally, contractors in southwest Washington keep up with projects through the summer. Winter naturally weakens demand, but next summer will be a real test, according to Rotschy.

Contractors will have to plan ahead with trip quotas in mind. Supply may need to be supplemented with aggregate from outside sources. This, in turn, will drive up prices.

To meet demand, the county is already looking to outside resources.

“We have to start thinking where we can get rock from and we end up looking to out-of-state resources,” says Nelson Holmberg, executive director at SWCA. “We have to start identifying out-of-state quarries and resources to get rock.”

According to Holmberg, the county is looking eight miles out to Portland, Oregon, for materials. Sourcing aggregate outside the area, however, presents new challenges.

“You can imagine the traffic congestions, issues and concerns this causes,” Holmberg says. “When we start looking out of state, we need to talk about the impact on our transportation systems.”

If Clark County didn’t have any local quarries producing aggregate, Holmberg estimates that 1,000 truck trips would be added to the freeway system on a daily basis for a single project. More trucks means more congestion, not to mention additional road wear and an increased carbon footprint.

“It’s really a big deal when you start to think about what it looks like if these resources aren’t available to us in our own county,” he says.

Combating the anti-mining culture

For southwest Washington, working with the community and local government is key to the future of area aggregate producers. Producers must present their industry in a better light, Main says, and this starts with education.

“We need to create a face that shows we are a positive and not a negative,” he says. “We are a part of the community.”

To Sauer, the education must convey the necessity of local aggregate producers and why, without them, the cost of repaving a driveway goes up 20 percent compared with just a few years ago.

“There’s a real cause and effect with what’s going on,” Sauer says.

Aggregate prices in the county have nearly doubled in the last five years, Smith adds. Communities ultimately end up paying more for projects to cover the transportation or additional handling of rock.

“Our industry needs to be heard,” Storedahl says. “Decision makers need to be educated and reminded on just how important quality aggregate reserves are to the construction industry. Consider for a moment just how many businesses and careers rely on their availability.”

Joe McCarthy

About the Author:

Joe McCarthy is an Associate Editor of Pit and Quarry Magazine. You can contact him at jmccarthy@northcoastmedia.net and at 216-363-7930.

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