Sands of Time Running Out on Era of Plentiful Sand

Everyone wants to live, work and play on the hip new waterfront so there’s less and less room for the traditional working waterfront. In the case of sand, unsightly loading facilities are giving way to lofts and parks and the ramifications are serious: greatly increased building costs, pollution and traffic.


Sands Of Time Running Out On Era Of Plentiful Sand – Bay Economy Threatened

By Wes Starratt, P. E., Senior Editor 
Published: June, 2002

Ferry riders may ask “Why are all of those barges huddled around Alcatraz and Angel Islands?” The answer is sand mining, and it’s being done to supply the sand needed for the construction industry. Sand, stone and gravel – collectively known as “aggregates” - are essential to construction, making up more than a quarter of most buildings. In reality our future is based on aggregates … and without sand mining in the bay, our current supplies would be severely limited.

There was a time when we could easily obtain all the sand we needed from local quarries, but that time is running out as expanding housing and commercial developments mushroom into our hills and valleys, preventing not only the expansion of existing sand quarries but the development of new ones. The bottom line is a battle of competing land uses, with sand quarries finding themselves on the losing end. So, as the demand for sand continues to grow and as the output of local quarries diminishes, attention has turned to additional sources of sand.

Looking Back to the Kaiser Days

Let’s go back to the year 1923 when the then road-builder, Henry Kaiser, received a contract to build a road through Livermore Valley, but, to build the road, he needed a local supply of sand and aggregates. At that time, the solution was relatively easy. The valley consisted largely of farmland with a few feet of topsoil on top of enormous deposits of high-quality aggregates. The entire valley was, and is, one big deposit of sand and gravel.

Kaiser bought some of the farmland and built a sand and gravel plant of sufficient capacity to supply not only his road project, but also the local construction industry. Thus, was born, Kaiser Sand and Gravel. Soon others bought up adjacent sand deposits, and the Livermore Valley became the source of sand and aggregates for much of the Bay Area.

For generations, residents would see pink (Kaiser’s wife’s favorite color) ready-mix concrete trucks plying the streets of the Bay Area with slogans such as “Together We Build” and “Find a Need and Fill it” … while the competition’s trucks carried slogans such as “Get a Load of This.”
As Bay Area’s population grew, it became evident that the Livermore Valley was probably too close to the growing metropolitan area to sustain a large-scale sand-mining industry. Subdivisions and business parks replaced farmland, and, as aggregate resources became depleted, it became difficult, if not impossible, to acquire the land for new sand-mining operations. The same situation was developing elsewhere in quarrying areas around the Bay Area. At the same time, increasing quantities of sand were needed for concrete and road-building materials. Fortunately, there proved to be another source of sand in the Bay Area, and it lay at the bottom of the bay where sand dredging (or mining) had taken place on a small scale for many years.

A New Team of Players

As the industry’s sources of supply began to change, the players also changed. Several years after the death of Henry Kaiser in 1967, a series of transactions took place that led to the demise of the pink concrete trucks. Ultimately, a British based firm, operating locally as Hanson Aggregates Mid-Pacific, Inc. acquired Kaiser’s operations. At about that same time, the firm operating an adjacent Livermore Valley sand quarry, Lone Star Cement, was acquired by another British firm, RMC, Ltd.

The Two Key Bay Sand Miners

As the lives of their local sand quarrying operations appeared to be approaching an end, both British firms, almost literally, plunged into San Francisco Bay. Hanson acquired two firms that had been long-time marine sand-mining companies, Tidewater Sand and Gravel and Jones Sand Company, while RMC acquired a sand-mining firm by the name of Bell. There remain a small number of independent sand dredgers, but these acquisitions make Hanson and RMC the largest sand miners in San Francisco Bay.

Today, Hanson has sand mining leases from the State Lands Commission with a permitted annual output in excess of 1.25 million cubic yards located at Point Knox Shoal off Angel Island, Alcatraz Shoal, Carquinez Straits, and Suisun Bay, as well as private tidelands in the Martinez/Antioch area. The firm has three tugs and three barges equipped with suction dredging equipment that are now operated under contract by Foss Maritime. The mined sand is moved by barge to port sites in San Francisco, Oakland, and Martinez.

RMC and its subsidiary Harbor Sand & Gravel of Redwood City have sand mining leases from the State Lands Commission for mining some 150,000 cubic yards per year in the Alcatraz Shoal and the Carquinez Straits. The firm has a single sand barge equipped with suction dredging equipment. The sand is processed at the Port of Redwood City for markets in Silicon Valley and the South Bay.

More Sand from the Bay? Concerns Expressed, New Leases Halted, and Studies Underway

As the demand for sand has continued to grow and supplies of quarried sand have begun to decline, the demand for sand mined from the bay has continued to grow. All of the present sand mining firms along with others are now seeking permits and leases from federal and state regulatory agencies to continue to mine sand from the bay, especially high-quality coarse sand from shoals in the central bay that is excellent for ready-mix concrete.

The regulatory agencies involved include the State Lands Commission, which holds title to state waters, leases the bay bottom to sand miners, and receives a royalty from sand mining. On the state level, permits are also needed from the Bay Conservation & Development Commission, the Dept. Of Conservation (Mines & Geology), and the Regional Water Quality Control Board. California Fish & Game must concur with the State Lands in the permitting process. Mining permits must also be obtained from the US Army Corps of Engineers (the
lead federal agency), with concurrence from the Federal Fish & Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fishery Service.

These state and federal agencies have consistently expressed a concern about the effects of sand mining on marine habitats, endangered species, water quality, commercial fisheries, and the natural replenishment of bay sand. In fact, even though a great deal of information is available, little has been published about what has been learned regarding the effects of sand mining on the bottom of the bay. The regulatory agencies have chosen the permit renewal process and the recent change in ownership of the companies to further scrutinize this activity. Sand mining firms have responded by jointly engaging the services of a leading environmental firm to make a detailed study of the environmental impacts of sand mining on the bay. That study is currently underway, with quarterly meetings held by the sand miners and the regulatory agencies to examine current data from the study. This process is likely to take at least two years.

BCDC Comments

Steve Goldbeck, Assistant Executive Director of BCDC, commented, ”We are working with the state and federal agencies to try to get a better handle on the impacts of sand mining on the bay’s resources. The sand miners are doing the right thing in sitting down with the regulatory agencies and working out a study plan to which everyone can agree. The problem is that it is a very difficult subject to study, because the action takes place at the bottom of the bay where we don’t have a lot of data. Currently the study financed by the sand miners is in its early stage. Eventually, there will be a need for a regional or programmatic Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the entire bay rather than EIRs for each mining lease.

“Because sand is a resource that is vitally needed in this area, we are working with the sand miners and trying to develop a mining plan that is sustainable and doesn’t have any adverse impacts. The miners have really tried to put their best foot foreword in working with us.”

A “Win-Win” Idea to Increase Sand Mining

One enlightened, “win-win” concept that has come forth recently to increase sand-mining in the bay and the delta, would be to permit sand mining in place of dredging in the Stockton Ship Channel and specifically in the New York Slough off Pittsburg and Antioch. This could be a test case to replace the US Army Corps of Engineers dredging of the channel with a private sand-mining operation. By combining dredging and mining into a single operation, it would be possible to reduce the cost of each. Such a program would provide an additional 300,000 cubic yards of sand per year without increasing the environmental impact already encountered by the Corps’ dredging operations.

Importing Sand

For low-cost bulk materials such as sand, shipment by water is generally considered the most cost efficient, although there are proposals to transport sand to the Bay Area by rail. In fact, one justification given for rehabilitating the Northwestern Pacific Railroad from the Port of Eureka into the Bay Area is the shipment of sand and aggregates from Humboldt Bay. The potential of that region as a source of sand was realized back in the 1980s when a series of shipments of sand were made to the Port of Redwood City by ocean-going barge. More recently, trial shipments of sand from Canada to Redwood City were made by RMC, and this May, the first 30,000-ton trial shipment of sand by a Canadian Steamship Lines’ self-unloading bulk carrier is scheduled. That should mark the beginning of regular monthly shipments of sand by RMC from Canada to the Port of Redwood City and would amount to more than 300,000 tons annually.

Meantime Hanson has focused its attention on the Port of San Francisco. Almost two years ago, the Port of San Francisco announced that it had entered into a five-year agreement with Hanson to develop a bulk-cargo shipping terminal at Pier 94. In October, 2001, the first regular shipment of 55,000 tons of high-quality sand and aggregates from British Columbia was received, and shipments are continuing at every month. Jeff Robbins, representative of Canadian Steamship Lines (CSL) advises that “British Columbia has vast supplies of aggregates and sand located with deep water access near the shoreline.” Current shipments are from Sechelt on the mainland north of Vancouver. CSL has recently put in service three new Panamax, “S” class, 60,000-dwt bulk carriers with self-discharging belt unloaders capable of discharging an entire shipment in 30 hrs. One of these ships will be calling at Pier 94 on a regular basis, accounting for some 700,000 tons of imported sand and aggregates per year.
John Rubiales of RMC, emphasized that “Sure, the Canadian sand is more costly, but the quality is much better than the sand mined in the bay. Besides, when you are in a situation where local supplies are limited, you have no choice but to look to offshore material. And that is the future of the sand industry in the bay area.”