New Jersey’s sand mining industry provides some of the country’s best sand but finds itself in an economic slump

DECEMBER 27, 2010

Author’s Note:

I wrote this article in 2011 for The Press of Atlantic City. I loved finding fascinating stories that no other publications had written about, especially those that were hiding in plain sight. This was one of those that my editors didn’t think would turn into anything, but somehow I made sand fascinating.

New Jersey is known for its beaches, but the sand found inland, buried beneath the surface, is arguably more precious.

Eons of geological fortune have given the state some of the best silica sand in the country, used to build homes and businesses and the roads to get to them, and to provide traction on those roads when they get icy.

Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson sprinted on top of sand mined from Cumberland County when he returned a New York Giants punt for 65 yards to win a Dec. 19 football game. Tonight, the Eagles are scheduled to play on their home turf, which is made of sand from the same mines, at Lincoln Financial Field.

But despite its prevalence, these minerals are such a basic raw material that the slump in construction has put the industry in a hole. More than a quarter of the industry’s New Jersey employees have been laid off since the recession began, and analysts do not predict business to rebound for another year.

“We’re pretty sure we’ve seen the bottom,” said Bill Layton, executive director of the New Jersey Concrete and Aggregates Association, “but we’re certainly not going to see any increase over 2010 in 2011. We’re simply not going to see it.”

New Jersey’s sand, which mostly comes from the state’s southern half, has been worth an estimated $176 million in recent years. The state was ranked 11th in overall industrial sand production nationwide, producing nearly 17 million tons in 2007, the latest figures available from the U.S. Geological Survey show.

Yet from the beginning of 2006 to the beginning of this year, the state lost 425 mining positions, nearly 28 percent, the New Jersey Department of Labor says.

Mining has always been part of the national and regional industrial makeup, along with fishing, agriculture and logging. The early iron industry at Batsto Village in Washington Township, Burlington County, dates to before the country’s founding, while the country’s first glass factories appeared in southern New Jersey in the late 18th century.

Because of the state’s varied geology, the North is home to mostly rock quarries, where stone is blasted and broken to make gravel products, while the South is home to sand mines.

Rare, high quality

Every state has some form of mining — high transportation costs necessitate making use of nearby mineral sources — but the industry is unique in New Jersey because sand of its quality is rarely found elsewhere in the U.S.

“Second only to perhaps Illinois, the purity and quality is the best in the country here in New Jersey,” said Wade Sjogren, co-owner of WHIBCO Inc., a sand-mining operation based in Bridgeton.

But the industry has changed a lot due to what materials are still available and how they are used.

The New Jersey Geological Survey counts more than 1,000 mining operations having been recorded in the state’s history, but only about 150 remain registered today. Many of those are inactive or simply have a permit to move around soil on their property.

Only one company remains that mines for the high-quality sand ideal for making clear glass: Unimin Corp., which has a facility in Downe Township.

All mining in New Jersey is done above ground with heavy machinery, not nearly as dramatic as the underground tunnels that dominate headlines and television news when they collapse and trap workers below the surface.

Dredge mining, the most common method in southern New Jersey, is nevertheless an important part of the industry.

‘Walking the dredge’

Henry Drummond, of Commercial Township, operates a dredge at U.S. Silica’s Maurice River Township mine. Drummond runs a $1.5 million, 35-year-old machine that pumps 125,000 tons of material per year.

On a recent morning, it was 27 degrees when he arrived to work at the site in the Port Elizabeth section of the township. He took a steel-hulled work boat from the edge of one of the lakes out to the dredge, where he stays six to 12 hours a day, depending on the season.

“You know how hard it is to get a guy to go out on a boat in the middle of winter by himself?” said plant manager C. Scott Eves. “Basically impossible.”

But Eves said Drummond treats the dredge like it’s his own, so much so that mine inspectors feel like they have to wipe their feet before stepping inside.

The machine sits on two rectangular pontoons that double as the nearly 2,000-gallon diesel fuel tanks. A long, black, metal tube juts at an angle from between the pontoons, down into the water.

From a cockpit above, Drummond steers the machine using two pulleys anchored on land. He pivots by driving long poles down to the ground and retracting the cables in one direction or another.

As it moves, an action called “walking the dredge” from one point to another, an egg beater-like device stirs the sand below and the machine sucks it up, sending it through a pipe snaking into the distance and spewing the slurry into a crater of sand called a containment.

It takes about a week to fill up one of these holding areas, at a rate of 140 tons per hour. The color and texture depend on where the material was pulled from, reflecting the varying layers of deposits left there from eons of geological development. Grains of different sizes and shapes are used for different purposes.

That quality satisfies the particular needs of a variety of different markets, and it’s why so many companies are concentrated in this particular part of southern New Jersey.

“Anywhere you go, you’ll find all the same companies where all the good sand is,” Eves said.

The risks of the job

Even though this region’s mining operations do not appear as perilous as working thousands of feet below the surface, safety remains an issue, with workers surrounded by powerful equipment in deep water or standing high above ground.

The last fatal sand-mining accident in New Jersey was in March 2005, when the plant operator at South State Inc. Dredge & Plant in Bridgeton fell into a dredge pond after the boat he was using to work on a dredge capsized.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration reported that the plant operator and a co-worker, neither of whom were wearing life jackets, fell into frigid water. The operator died a week later due to his injuries.

So far this year, 21 people have died in mining operations nationwide, the agency says.

Other industry challenges include environmental concerns and public opposition, both of which run counter to a need for easy and nearby access to materials.

The mines of today remain widespread throughout the state because of trucking the sand is expensive. Fuel, insurance and the man hours of drivers are costly, too.

“If you’re going to transport it a long distance, it’s going to be noncompetitive,” said Karl Muessig, state geologist for the New Jersey Geological Survey.

But Layton predicts distance is going to be an issue in the future, particularly a few decades from now, when the state’s existing mines are mostly maxed out and environmental regulations keep them from expanding.

“It’s not like opening up a Wawa on the corner,” he said. “That’s a huge struggle, because of environmental and public pressure.”

The sand mining in southern New Jersey is not typically noisy, and most sites are isolated from nearby homes by a buffer of forest. But they do at times receive pushback from locals.

Maurice River Township Mayor Andrew Sarclette said his government’s zoning ordinances for mines mimic the regulations set forth by the Pinelands Commission, but even without oversight from the state agency, he said he would not approve of further expansion.

His eastern corner of Cumberland County hosts several large mines, which provide local jobs and significant taxes to the rural community, but he said he is “not a big fan of bulldozing trees to make a hole.”

“I know it’s a business and it does employ people and we need the sand and all those things,” he said, “but we’ve contributed enough to that.”

Nature restored

One recent day, Eves, the plant manager at U.S. Silica, stopped his truck and pointed into the distance at a mature bald eagle gliding over a mound of sand at his Port Elizabeth facility. Eagles nest on the edges of the mine. The birds float overhead and look below, scanning for fish living in ponds left to nature after dredges sucked up all the usable sand.

The site was once all thick forest in the mid-20th century, with a tiny creek running through. As crews removed the trees and extracted the soil down to the water table and below, the resulting lakes became the dominant feature, visible by satellite because their purity and lack of organic growth leaves them as clear and vivid as that of the Caribbean or Mediterranean seas.

Eventually, life fills the void, although Eves said he is not sure how. The theory, he said, is that fish eggs get stuck to the legs of birds that redeposit them in the mine’s newly formed lakes, while natural forces bring vegetation, insects and the other elements of an ecosystem.

A lake toward the rear of the property, not mined for about 35 years, looks as natural as any other, its water far darker than that of those newly mined water bodies because of the lush organic life now growing on its bottom. The company has a fishing tournament there each year.

“This is a good place for chain pickerel,” Eves said after stopping at the water’s bank.

Eves argued that mining, while unsightly, does little environmental damage, eventually exchanging one habitat for another.

At the same time, his operation is restricted partly because of endangered species habitat, particularly the northern pine snake, on one boundary. Another side of the property is bounded by hundreds of acres of land the company sold to the state to be preserved, while another part is adjacent to private property.

He estimated his company has millions of tons of sand left to extract on the property already approved for mining, and hopes to secure approval from the state in the future to mine as deep as 100 feet, rather than 50 feet, to extend the operation’s life.

Premium grains

At WHIBCO Inc.’s mining site, located on Estell Manor Road in Port Elizabeth area, sand is pulled from 90 feet below the water level and sent through a tube to a processing facility that separates the material by grain size.

Sjogren’s family purchased the business in 1983, but it was established as the Whitehead Brothers Co. in 1841 and was the first to use U.S.-mined sand for the foundry industry to cast metals.

While the cast metal industry has declined, Sjogren’s company has found a wide variety of markets elsewhere, such as asphalt roof shingles, concrete and the infields of baseball diamonds.

The product is used by the horse show and racing industry, which seeks a particular type of grain for optimum performance on the track. Lately, a new market has been shale mining, which uses sand to blast rock and extract natural gas.

“It’s a necessary component for so many of the things we have here and take for granted,” said Sjogren, who also is vice chairman of the National Industrial Sand Association.

Some of those other common uses are the sports fields for society’s youngest children, golf courses for their parents and professional sports stadiums for the country’s highest paid athletes.

“You’d think they’d give us season tickets,” Eves said, “but they don’t even know who we are.”

Last year, 22.3 million people watched the New York Yankees defeat the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 6 of the World Series at the newly built Yankees Stadium. The sand on the players’ cleats came from the mines in Maurice River Township, partly from U.S. Silica’s mine.

Eves is a Phillies fan. He said he was happy to see the teams compete on a quality playing field, but what he was really thinking that evening is unfit for publication.