Sand mining expansion raises concerns with residents

Sand mining expansion raises concerns with residents

Source: Star-News (Wilmington, NC), February 16, 2014
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For most people, sand mining is an invisible step in the construction process. The mining is typically tucked away in industrial corridors, and the sand is used in construction projects long before the first viewing of a building takes shape, keeping sand mines out of sight and out of mind.

But as the need for sand in local construction projects increases and suitable land grows scarce, concerns over sand mining are creeping into the limelight.

The most recent sand mine request in New Hanover County, by Hilton Properties Limited Partnership, would rezone 62 acres at 4117 Castle Hayne Road from rural agricultural to heavy industrial use to create a sand mine.

Concerns about groundwater contamination, traffic and noise and questions over site contamination from the neighboring General Electric plant dominated a recent public hearing on this proposed sand mine.

While this request garnered an unusual amount of outrage from the project’s neighbors, it is far from a unique setup in New Hanover.

About 30 sand mining sites have been approved in the county by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources in the past 50 years, with 10 of these considered active sand mines. And this could just be the tip of the iceberg. There could be far more unlisted operational sand mines located throughout the county, thanks to loopholes in NCDENR’s rules.

Nervous neighbors

Sand is often used to make concrete and as an abrasive for manufacturing. Construction projects spanning from residential to commercial require the use of sand for materials, as well as to level off the land prior to building.

Of the 30 mines that have been approved by NCDENR in New Hanover, seven of them span more than 50 acres like the proposed Castle Hayne mine. The most expansive project was 361 acres, and the smallest was two acres.

The major difference between the proposed project and the existing mines is its proximity to homes. Though located more than one mile away from the actual mining site, the Wooden Shoe neighborhood backs up to the private road that would be used to transport the sand off the Hilton Limited property.

Most of the existing sand mines and those currently operating have been located in industrial corridors in the county, like those along U.S. 421, so no other residential neighborhoods have dealt with similar issues.

Defining the mines

At least two different types of sand mines are found in New Hanover County.

The most common type is the open pit method, like the one proposed by Hilton Limited. The S.T. Wooten Corporation also operates one off Sutton Lake Road.

Chris Croom, the division manager of quality control and materials, said the process is “pretty simple.” An excavator is used to dig the sand in the mine. The sand collected is then hauled off site to be used in construction materials.

In the case of the Sutton Lake Road Pit, the sand is used for S.T. Wooten’s asphalt plant, Croom said.

Another mine, the Sutton Pit operated by Wilmington Materials, uses a different method. Byron Williams, operations manager, said his company uses a “barge that sucks the sand up,” rather than digging into the mine.

Most of the sand from the Sutton Pit is collected and used locally for highway and bypass construction, Williams said. It is considered a commercial mine because more than one source uses sand from the site.

According to the mineral commodity summary conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in January 2013, the most recent report available, construction sand and gravel in the country were valued at $6.4 billion and produced by an estimated 4,000 companies and government agencies. The majority of this sand was used for road stabilization, in concrete and in asphalt.

The report showed that construction sand and gravel output for 2012 increased by about 5 percent compared with 2011. It forecast an 8 percent increase in 2013 across the United States as the economy continued to improve.

New Hanover County has also seen a steady construction growth rate over the past few years. More than 2,300 building permits were issued during the 2012-2013 fiscal year, a 23 percent increase over the previous year, This trend is likely to continue as the number of building permits issued this fiscal year is already greater than at this same point last budget cycle, according to county records.

Strong demand, tight supply

The county has struggled to have enough local sand sources to keep up with the growth in local construction.

James Walker, the vice president of Elite Construction and Grading Inc. and manager of several sand mines, said the cost of sand in a local commercial sand mine sits at about $5.50 per cubic yard of sand, plus the cost to haul it. He said it used to be about $3 when sources were more plentiful in the mid-2000s.

“There are just no sources, and the sources that are available are not infinite,” Walker said. “I applaud anyone who would start one. It is needed in every form of construction.”

He said the difficulty of finding industrial-zoned land that would work for a sand mine and the public outcry that accompanies many mining operations have decreased the number of people trying to start them.

“No one wants what they think sand mines bring to an area,” he said. “The permits are difficult to get, so we have to get them coupled with another project.”

Though Walker is currently affiliated with the commercial River Road Sand Mine, he said he has worked on project-centric sites in the past.

These are known as “borrow sources” rather than mines. The sand mined in these areas can only be used for the designated project. It cannot be sold to other builders.

The N.C. Department of Transportation frequently uses this loophole for road projects.

Not being a commercial mine comes with its own set of restrictions, but it at least ensures sand for that specific project and can lower the project costs, Walker said.

These other restrictions are not sanctioned through NCDENR.

NCDENR Regional Engineer Dan Sams admits that the “borrow source” process means DENR does not know about many of the active sand mines in the area because they are folded into other permits.

Monitoring the mines

NCDENR is responsible for monitoring the environmental impact of sand mines, but because not all of them go through the agency, the monitoring is not always comprehensive, Sams said.

He said NCDENR does not look at any local issues when giving out permits. It would be up to the local agencies giving out the project permits to ensure the requirements of the state’s Sedimentation Pollution Control Act are met, Sams said.

When NCDENR gives out the permit, it specifically looks for any “adverse effects on the water table, air quality impacts, and physical hazards to the neighborhood,” Sams said.

“They are not supposed to be doing any environmental damage,” he said.

Of most concern is the impact to the water table. Digging down to this level and disturbing the groundwater can cause dewatering, which can lead to erosion of the property if not discharged properly. Dewatering can also cause wells on neighboring properties if not handled properly.

Bill Mumford, the vice president of development with Newland Communities, said the state permit process adds incentives to make sure they comply with the environmental regulations.

Newland Communities owns the River Road Sand Mine, referred to as the Cape Fear River Mine on NCDENR documents. The mine will eventually serve as an “amenity lake” for the RiverLights community.

Each NCDENR-permitted mine must post a bond that is held as collateral until the mine is closed and the land is put back to the level agreed upon with the permit, Mumford said.

“If we walk away tomorrow or go bankrupt, this is the state’s monetary mechanism that gives the state the ability to revegetate the land,” he said.

A public example

State officials say New Hanover County is one of the most popular areas in the state for sand mining, thanks to its soil type and growing demand.

“There is quite a market for sand and soil here,” Sams said. “People have to elevate their lots here. You have to build it up a lot more here than in other areas of the state.”

County Engineering Director Jim Ianucci said most of the land left to develop in New Hanover is low-lying, and the sand is needed to elevate properties and to “allow for adequate draining.”

“Properties have to be able to drain properly. Water has to be able to run down the property to some sort of lake or pond,” he said. “Often you have to bring in filler sand in order to make that happen.”

Some homes also have to use sand to build mound septic systems when the soils are not suitable for a traditional septic system, he said.

The county even got in on the sand mining action, creating and managing the Ogden Sand Mine in the early 2000s. The Ogden sand mine is one of the most successful mines to have existed in the county, Sams said.

Today, the mine sits as the centerpiece of Smith Creek Park — a nearly 35-acre lake fed by groundwater and an underground spring that dominates the property.

The site was used as a sand source first for the I-40 project during the 1980s. The property was then used as a research area by the University of North Carolina Wilmington before being turned over to the county.

When New Hanover took ownership, it decided to restart the mining to meet the demands of the booming construction industry, with proceeds from the sand sales dedicated to the park’s development.

The mine netted the county more than $600,000 while in operation and paid for most of the costs associated with opening Smith Creek Park.

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