Crunch coming for gravel reserves in Western Canada Go back

Friday, September 11, 2015

 Journal of Commerce

Jean Sorensen, Sept 11, 2015
Link to original article 

The crunch is coming for aggregate supplies for Western Canadian cities and rural areas. It's becoming more expensive and scarce, and B.C. is even shipping to Hawaii, San Francisco and Alaska because of growing international hunger for aggregate.
Crunch coming for gravel reserves in Western Canada

Access to new aggregate reserves still remains the main problem in both Western Canadian urban centres and rural municipalities, with two provincial rural bodies having attempted to secure future supplies for up to 100 years.

The Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM) has launched a study looking at aggregate supply (both potential and active sites) to offset shortages that some rural municipalities are now experiencing.

"We are using a lot more gravel than in the past," said SARM president Ray Orb, adding areas are pushed by increased industrial development, population and more infrastructure projects.

The SARM encompasses some 296 rural municipalities (RM).

Aggregate quarries there are mostly either privately-owned or operated by the provincial highways ministry.

However, some rural municipalities have control over their own aggregate pits.

The report was commissioned as some municipalities are trucking the material long distances, he said, adding he's heard distances up to 160 kilometres for a return trip.

Also, Saskatchewan, between two mountainous regions in Canada, does not have geology that lends itself to an abundance of aggregate reserves.

Orb said SARM is now evaluating consultants' proposals. However, Orb expects a supply and demand report to be completed by year end. He said the cost of the study and forecast reserves has yet to be defined, but most rural municipalities are looking for a 50-60 year supply of aggregate.

"There is also competition from within the province – the Ministry of Highways needs lots of gravel as well as the RMs," said Orb, who hopes that the emergent strategy will provide for both municipal and provincial needs.

That's not happened in Alberta, where the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties (AAMDC), representing 59 counties and municipal districts, commissioned a similar study after experiencing similar concerns.

The report Got Gravel! Strategies to Secure Gravel for Rural Municipalities was completed in late 2013.

One of the recommendations was a commitment from provincial government that municipalities would have access to gravel on crown land to complete road maintenance.

Gerald Rhodes, AAMDC executive director, said the association, which is looking for reserves to cover 100 years, had its recommendation torpedoed by Alberta's Progressive Conservative Party, which maintained gravel should go to the highest bidder if the site is less than 80 acres and municipalities have no priority rights.

"Commercial operators require certainty that their efforts to explore and develop gravel pits less than 80 acres are not jeopardized by municipalities having subsequent first rights to the resource," the province responded.

Rhodes said that there are not many 80 acre ventures found in the regions affected.

He said that since municipalities compete for the gravel with the private sector and the Ministry of Highways, they are facing mounting costs maintaining a vast road network. The average rural municipality has 3,500 km of gravel roads.

"Gravel is a huge issue as the AAMDC membership is responsible for the largest road and bridge network of any stakeholder in the province," he said.

"The building and maintenance of transportation infrastructure is the single biggest expense for most to rural municipalities."

Rhodes plans to take the issue back to the New Democratic Party government.

In urban centres, the struggle for reserves isn't easier. Travis Coates, president of the Alberta Sand and Gravel Association said the problem is access.

"You can map to death but it's not much good if you can't get access," he said.

Increasing urbanization is making permits tough to get around urban centres. "Operators are going further and further out to get gravel," he said, adding that impacts costs. He said there's also a lack of information on aggregate production in Alberta.

"We don't know the current production in the province," he said as private land output is not tracked and there exists little information from provincial and municipal use. It leaves a question mark about filling future demands, he said. B.C. also struggles with the access issue.

The B.C. Stone, Sand and Gravel Association has attempted to develop a "go and no-go" map in the Fraser Valley for aggregate extraction, but efforts have stymied as residents resisted and politics flared.

"We worked for 15 years with provincial and municipal governments to establish quantities and the more people who got involved the less progress we made," said Paul Allard, association executive director.

"The public purse is the biggest customer of aggregate and we continue to have to move further and further away to get it. At some point, the cost of transportation is going to exceed the cost of the material."

He added that more reserves near urban areas are needed. He pointed to member company Polaris Materials.

The company is shipping aggregate to San Francisco, Hawaii and Alaska as larger centres internationally are also hungry for the material." Polaris barges from quarries on Vancouver Island. "If we don't start finding on-going sources, the province is going to be in big trouble," he said.

Aggregate Facts

Did you know that for straight gravel hauls with minimal traffic, the price of aggregate increases $0.15 per tonne for every mile from the extraction site? Close to market reserves is one way the aggregate industry reduces environmental footprints and risk of accident.