Myth and the Permitting of Aggregate Mines
Nothing is more important to the construction industry than rock. Whether sand, gravel, crushed stone or blocks of stone, rock is used in everything from road building and concrete to countless building products, including drywall, insulation and glass.
Rock is heavy, and used in enormous quantities, so there is an obvious efficiency in locating sources close to consumers. Doing so means reduced haul distances, cleaner air, less heavy truck congestion, lower cost to consumers and that the money spent to purchase, process and transport this essential resource remains in the local community. But the siting and permitting of gravel pits and quarries is growing ever more difficult.
A Geologist’s Point of View
Mark Krumenacher, a professional geologist with GZA GeoEnvironmental in Waukesha, is author of two publications that explore how public sentiment, fueled by misinformation and amplified by social media, can work to defeat permitting applications, even for mines that meet or exceed all regulatory requirements.1
As a geologist, Kruemenacher has attended countless town and county board meetings all over the Midwest on behalf of operators and owners seeking to permit mines. “Too often the debates . . . pit genuine concerns against disingenuous concerns, factual information against alternative facts or disinformation, and ethics against intellectual dishonesty,” he writes.2
One area in which myth appears to dominate the debate is the presumption that a mine will have a negative effect on property values, according to Kruemenacher.
Opponents often claim that construction or expansion of a quarry will reduce property values in the surrounding community. Although individuals and organizations issue statements and use social media networks in attempt to validate these concerns, they simply make claims without citing research. A common approach of those opposed to quarries is to repeat an unsupported statement often and loudly enough to infer that it is true, an especially effective tactic.3
Krumenacher provides a detailed analysis of published studies showing that no reliable link exists between property value and mine locations. Rather, Krumenacher demonstrates that the question is highly fact specific. He addresses a study commonly reported by opponents and known as the Erickcek and Hite study.4 Although widely cited, Krumanacher notes that the “study” was not a study at all, but a theoretical model based upon a non-peer reviewed and non-published paper.
Krumenacher’s dissection of the Erickcek and Hite study is interesting to read because it illustrates how junk science is created and then, through citation and re-citation, elevated into scientific certainty. Krumancher writes that “Local decision makers and residents need to understand the significant limitations of such reports alleging to be scientific studies. Public opinion is too often influenced by unsubstantiated claims or modeling exercise that appear to be sophisticated but produce results that do not match real-world observations.”5
When Blind Citation Leads to False Information
In a December 2022 paper,6 Krumenacher illustrates how a single reference in the back pages of a book, if blindly cited and repeated enough, can grow into conventional wisdom to the point that policy is driven by a false narrative, even if the concept is absurd. The paper tracks the origin of the belief that there is a global “sand shortage.” Krumenacher notes that the earth has an inexhaustible supply of sand, yet, “As a direct result of the stories and the implications they represent, fiberglass insulation manufacturers have been told they should not be allowed to operate or obtain permits to open new or expand operations at the expense of the earth’s dwindling supply of sand.”7
Krumenacher traced the origin of the myth to a 2013 documentary called Sand Wars, which in turn extrapolated a quote from a 2009 book, Sand, the Never-Ending Story, by Michael Welland. Welland’s book references how a construction boom in China had resulted in the loss of sand beaches due to illegal sand dredging.
Krumenacher follows the extrapolation of this issue from one unsubstantiated media story to another. That many countries both import and export certain grades of sand, in turn was cited as further evidence of the global shortage and the exploitation of a dwindling resource. Krumenacher explains how despite that the origin of these stories was based on a localized beach sand problem, it grew without any scientific basis to include all sand including grades known as industrial sand.8
Kruemnacher illustrates the absurdity of the premise that there is a global sand shortage:
Sand can be found across the earth from the mountains to the sea and is so abundant that resources and reserves cannot be quantified. It is washed out of the mountains by streams and deposited along the way in river valleys, lakes and beaches. Historical beaches and adjacent sand dunes along ancient seas 500 million years ago accumulated hundreds, if not thousands, of feet of sand later compressed into sandstone found around the globe. In the Midwestern United States, such ancient beaches are present beneath more than 50,000 square miles of small portions of Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas, in general order of predominance. This sand is generally pure silica, at least 98 to 99 percent, and is the premier industrial sand in the world. It would be impossible to estimate the volume of sand and beyond comprehension to believe that there is or ever will be a shortage of industrial sand. The only real potential threat to any theoretical industrial sand shortage pertains to the ever-expanding residential encroachment on supplies and challenges associated with permitting new quarries or expansions.9
Krumenacher’s writings point to the problem posed by the ease with which flawed or unsubstantiated information can be propagated and multiplied by social media and, if repeated enough, can become widely accepted as true.
This phenomenon has serious implications for the siting of gravel mines and quarries when operations demonstrating compliance with all applicable regulation are vilified by local opposition based on misinformation and as a result are denied permits.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Construction and Public Contract Law Section Blog.
1 See Mark Kruemnacher, Quarry Regulatory Control and Permitting (2021), and“Reality Check on a Purported Global Sand Shortage, Sensationalism Extrapolated From Isolated Occurrences to Global Phenomena,” Electronic Green Journal 2022.
2 Kruemnacher, Quarry Regulatory Control and Permitting.
3 Kruemnacher, Quarry Regulatory Control and Permitting 168.
4 George A. Erickeck, “An Assessment of the Economic Impact of the Proposed Stoneco Gravel Mine Operation on Richland Township,” Report prepared for the Richland Township Planning Commission, 2006.
5 Kruemnacher, Quarry Regulatory Control and Permitting 179.
6 Kruemnacher, “Reality Check on a Purported Global Sand Shortage: Sensationalism Extrapolated from Isolated Occurrences to Global Phenomena,” Electronic Green Journal, December 2022.