Eagle Ford shale of South Texas and
other tight rock formations.
In fracking, a mixture of fluids
and “proppants” are pumped at high
pressure into a perforated well pipe to
create small fractures in tight shale rock.
The small fractures allow oil and natural
gas to escape and flow out of the well.
Proppants literally prop open the
fissures in the rock and may be
sand, sand coated with resin, or
ceramic pellets. Today Proppant
Specialists’ mine, which began
operating in fall 2008, is at the center
of activity near Brady in southeastern
Other sand mining companies
operating in the area include
Houston-based Cadre Material
Products; Carmeuse Industrial Sands,
whose parent is Global Carmeuse
Group of France; and Connecticut-based Unimin Corp.
“We produce frack sand almost
exclusively at the Voca location,” said
Drew Bradley, senior vice president
of operations for Unimin, which has
had a mine in Voca since the mid-
1990s. “Demand for sand has grown
significantly,” as companies step up
fracking in the Southwest, he said.
The sand mines are cranking around
the clock. Proppant Specialists runs two
12-hour shifts around the clock, seven
days a week, its managers said.
At the Proppant Specialists’ open-air mine, visitors are surrounded on
three sides by red, 80-foot sandstone
cliffs. On one end, an explosive charge
created a crumple of sandstone. The
rock is hauled to processing units. As
part of a two-day process, the clumps of
sandstone go into hoppers to be broken
up. The sand is washed – cleansed of
red clay – sorted by grain size with
sieves, then dried.
“This is a unique deposit of high
quality,” Jordan said of the sandstone
outcrops at Voca. “If limestone were
on top, it wouldn’t be economical to
mine the sand.”
Fracking operators are willing to
pay for the right kind of sand for their
operation. They need sand that’s
uniform, round and strong – that is,
resistant to being crushed thousands
of feet down in dense shale rock,
said Texas geologist Jerry McCalip,
an officer in the Texas chapter of
the Association of Environmental &
Engineering Geologists.Users also want
sand that won’t dissolve in acids.
“It needs to be predominantly quartz
or silica,” he said.
such as coal or grain. Each ship can
carry about 75,000 tons of aggregate.
1,450-mile voyage down the coast to the
Port of Long Beach, where Vancouver,
Canada-based Polaris leases eight
acres of waterside real estate.
Conveyor belts stretching from the
ship to the terminal can offload 2,000 to
3,000 tons of material an hour, taking
as long as 40 hours to empty a full ship.
The terminal, little more than a parking
lot for aggregate, has room for about
120,000 tons of material.
It’s then time for the aggregate to
make its way to the construction
sites – and, for the first time, to be
loaded into trucks and be transported
Warren Coalson, a consultant to
California mine and quarry operators,
estimates it costs $220 to haul a
standard 25-ton truckload on a 25-mile
trip in L.A. traffic. That works out to
about 35 cents per ton per mile.
In a massive oceangoing vessel,
it’s dramatically cheaper: roughly
half a cent per ton per mile, Polaris
spokesman Nick Van Dyk said.
That leads to some striking math:
To ship one ton of rock over 1,450
miles of ocean to Long Beach costs
about $7.25. To truck it from Long
Beach to downtown L.A., about 25
miles, adds an additional $8.75. And
at $16 combined, that’s less than the
$22.75 it might cost to truck a ton of
aggregate on the 65-mile trip from a
quarry in Palmdale to downtown.
“That’s the equation – that’s what
makes it work,” Van Dyk said. “The
logistics are a big part of it.”
And getting bigger.
L.A.’s local sand and gravel supplies
aren’t as local as they used to be. With
most of Irwindale’s quarries now vacant
pits, projects might get aggregate from
as far away as Palmdale or Victorville.
San Diego and the San Francisco Bay
Area, too, are having to tap increasingly
A 2012 report from the California
state geologist estimates that quarries
in Los Angeles County and the Bay
Area have permits to produce less
than one-third of the aggregate that
will be needed over the next 50 years.
San Diego, which already imports
aggregate from Mexico, is in even
It’s not that California doesn’t
have enough sand and gravel. But as
development has sprawled, quarries
or potential quarry sites that were (Sand mining continued on page 29)
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(Logistics continued from page 24) once in sparsely populated areas
are now surrounded by people —
who don’t want the attendant noise,
pollution and truck traffic.
Material from Southern California
quarries generally costs $12 or $13 a
ton, said Coalson, the quarry consultant.
Polaris’ aggregate sells for closer to
$20 a ton. But builders say the higher
quality material actually saves them
At its most basic, concrete is a
mixture of sand, gravel, water and
cement. And of those elements, cement
is the most expensive, selling for
upwards of $100 per ton.
If you’re laying down a sidewalk,
you can use whatever aggregate you
want. But to make high-performance
concrete, the materials matter. Use
lower-quality sand and gravel and you’ll
need to add a larger amount of cement,
said Todd Lamberty, a project manager
for construction firm Webcor Builders.
“The aggregate that’s locally
mined is pretty poor quality in terms
of its shear strength,” said Lamberty,
who is overseeing cement work at
several downtown projects using
Polaris’ products. “You end up putting
a ton of cement in the mix to make
up for that, and cement is the most
Using less cement not only reduces
costs but has other benefits. Cement
gives off heat as it cures; too much heat
can cause shrinking and cracking. Less
cement and more aggregate lowers
those risks, Lamberty said.
(This story first appeared in the
Los Angeles Times)
Sand mining booming
as fracking grows
Ron Jordan picked up a handful of
damp sand as it cascaded off a broad
conveyor belt, eventually bound for
trucks or rail cars that will take it
to eager buyers in South Texas and
around the country.
“This is the good stuff,” Jordan said
as he fingered the golden-colored sand.
“This is what everybody wants.”
The sand felt more grainy than the
sand on your average Texas beach.
It was beach sand, though, that
two days earlier had been mined from
sandstone formed from an ancient sea
that lapped what was shoreline here
more than 500 million years ago.
Sand mining is booming in Central
Texas, as drilling companies are
demanding tons of it. Sand aids in
getting the best production from wells
drilled in the Permian Basin and