By Elizabeth Thomas
Quarries on public land are born, worked and returned to nature
Every mining claim starts as a discovery.
Someone wakes up one day, throws a bunch of tools in the back of their pickup and sets out to explore the mountains, rivers and valleys that comprise our public lands. They look for signs many may miss on a casual adventure through the wilderness: places where the river bends just so, dimensional outcroppings of rock, speckles in stone.
When they see something that looks promising, the explorer does a little digging (or panning, if searching in a body of water). Just like an astute shopper will spray samples of perfume to smell, not relying on the packaging to sell them the product, a prospective miner will pull up a piece of earth and take samples. They mark the spot on a map and continue the quest (or go home, if it’s getting too dark to work. Let’s be realistic here).
In regard to stone, these samples are tested for strength, hardness, porosity, endurance through freezing and thawing out again a lot of times, density, and a range of other attributes. The goal is to discern whether the stone is durable enough to withstand centuries of the sort of abuse characteristic of life on the surface of Earth, like freezing temperatures, rain water, earthquakes, UV rays — you name it. Not all stone has an equal level of quality and no one wants to place a mining claim on stone that is liable to fall apart in 20 years.
If the stone is acceptable, the explorer puts some markers on that ground and files for a mining claim with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Involved in this process is proving to the BLM that the material is “locatable,” which means it is distinct and unique and can be sold commercially for a profit above what other stone commands in the market.
Now that the prospector has a claim, they have to complete a Notice of Intention to Commence Mining Operations, a Reclamation Plan and a mining plan — all of which are filed with the BLM and a state agency. In Utah, this is the Department of Oil, Gas and Mining. Putting these plans together takes months of work and includes everything from a soil analysis to an engineer determining how to shape the area that is going to support the waste rock dug up during the mining process. After the original is completed and submitted, the company must work through a series of revisions as requested by the BLM and the state agency, a process that may take years. The resulting plans are often hundreds of pages long and include not only how much is going to be mined from where, but also how everything is going to be put back once the miner closes the claim. Money for this putting-it-back operation, called “reclamation,” is set aside in a surety bond so that the government and the American people can know that when the mining company is finished with the land, it will restore it to its natural habitat, with a slope similar to the land around it.
With these plans approved, the company needs to address the safety of its miners. Employees are trained — and retrained annually — on mining how-to and safety. While most workplaces are watched over by OSHA, mines fall under the jurisdiction of MSHA — the Mine Safety and Health Administration. This organization monitors operations to ensure safety protocol is observed.
Once all of these plans in place, the mining can finally begin.
Stone quarries are open-pit mines and quarriers use excavators combined with drilling and blasting to loosen and pull out the rock. Explosives are only handled by those who have been specifically trained and licensed in their use and they are loaded so that the result is more “pop” than “kaboom.” Anything too big would not only be dangerous, but destroy the stone they are trying to extract.
Once stone is pulled out of the ground, it is sorted, chiseled, sawn, split and otherwise worked into an end product that gets passed on to the consumer.
Natural building stone is used in exterior and interior facades, water features, walkways and patios and a variety of landscaping applications. Aggregates are used in a lot of behind-the-scenes construction work, such as backfill or in concrete.
When a quarry or mine has run its course, the area is reclaimed. The holes are filled in, the slope is conformed to the land around it and seeds are planted to restore the natural habitat. Before too long, local species venture back into the area and the circle of life continues. Backpackers, bicyclists, horseback riders and anyone else passing through the area later will have no idea there was once a quarry on that land.
The quarrier’s goal is to dig up as much usable rock as possible while ultimately returning the land to a similar or improved post-mining use. This means that in most cases, the land is better contoured, has better drainage and is less prone to erosion from runoff.
This next part may seem obvious, but once that stone has been dug up, it doesn’t need to be quarried again. It’s not like anyone’s ever had to rebuild Stonehenge; the stone is here to stay. It might need some polishing now and again, but when a stone building is renovated, most of that stone is re-used. It does not end up in a landfill. Many stone businesses will even purchase used stone and sell it again to a new user. The bottom line is that natural stone is quarried once and used forever.
With new technological advances, stone quarriers are also learning how to do more with less. The best example of this is thin stone veneer: Since the stone is thinner, less of it is needed to cover the same square footage. The end-user gets all the benefits of natural stone, including its durability and insulative properties, while the quarrier is able to make one quarry’s worth of stone stretch further.
It can be said that the life cycle of every quarry is bookended with a love for the mountains, rivers and valleys that surround us. Miners see beauty and utility in nature and deliver it to the public — a process that takes a lot of hard work, government cooperation and ingenuity. The result, though, is always worth it.
Elizabeth Thomas is a third-generation member of a mining family and is a principal at American Stone, a retail company in Salt Lake City.