USG preps for new Avery Quarry, targets construction this year | News

USG preps for new Avery Quarry, targets construction this year | News

ALABASTER Twp. – Building upon an already lengthy local history, USG is looking to continue its gypsum operations in Alabaster Township well into the future. To secure the ongoing production, as well as the employment of those in the community who work for USG, the company is completing the steps to establish a new quarry.

USG officials presented their plans at a recent meeting of the Iosco County Board of Commissioners, and noted that construction of the Avery Quarry is proposed for this year. They say that USG will celebrate its 120th birthday in 2022 by opening the new quarry, which is named for its original founder, Sewell Avery.

As previously reported, in 2018 USG purchased nearly 600 acres of state forest land adjacent to its current property, with the expressed intention of continuing to quarry gypsum in the township.

The local reserves were part of the company’s founding more than a century ago, and they’ve steadily produced from this location ever since, says USG Manager Matt Craig. “We are proud of our history in the community, and we’re excited to announce we’re embarking on this new chapter of gypsum production at Alabaster.”

As part of the endeavor, USG has submitted a wetlands permit application to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

Craig says that neighboring property owners and other stakeholders have been notified of USG’s intent, and he assured that those from the company have, and will continue, to answer any questions and address concerns.

In fact, during the recent on-site interview for this story, he said that the plans and designs which have been put forth were done so in a way as to not adversely impact the community.

Further, any land utilized by USG will undergo a reclamation process wherein the property is returned to a natural state. If five acres of wetland are utilized, for instance, the company has to later restore five acres in the same watershed. The reclamation work is ultimately determined by EGLE and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

From home building and cement manufacturing, to agriculture and more, USG states that the Avery Quarry is welcome news to the Michigan industries which depend on gypsum-based products. The essential raw material is used in a wide range of applications, including food additives, animal feed, soil conditioner in farming, fertilizers, drywall and plaster.

Synthetic gypsum, made from emission stack material of coal-burning power plants, has been a key material in industry for decades. However, Craig points out that synthetic sources are rapidly declining as coal-burning plants are retired or shifted to natural gas for energy. So it’s critical to have a local, reliable source of natural gypsum rock for the dozens of industries and hundreds of companies USG serves in Michigan.

Also, the shift away from synthetic gypsum being created as a by-product of power plants has put increased pressure on natural gypsum, and available supplies around the United States are short. This includes the reserves at USG’s existing quarry in Alabaster Township, which is nearing the end of its productive life and will soon be depleted.

In terms of the need for a new quarry, the company states that its ability to supply gypsum has been very limited over the past several years, even as demand for gypsum-based construction products has increased significantly.

Craig, joined by other USG staff, also spoke to this at the March 7 Tawas City Council meeting. “We’re going back to what we did before the power plants produced synthetic gypsum, which is to mine natural rock. And this area has an abundance of natural gypsum, that is part of the deposit that goes throughout Michigan,” he advised. With the local gypsum being so close to the surface, it’s also much easier to access and the most economical to mine. “And that’s why there’s three different gypsum companies in this area.”

Councilman Chuck Klenow said that with the increasing demand, it can probably be assumed that the other local companies will continue to grow, which will also be a benefit to the area. “And I appreciate you bringing this to the council; keeping us apprised of it.”

The Alabaster quarry has been in existence since 1862, and has been part of U.S. Gypsum Company since its formation in 1902. “And [it’s] still the same company today, operating a quarry,” Craig told council members. “We’ve been in continuous operation since then, but business has slowed down; picked up. Our ship loading system shut down in 2000, and portions of it were taken out in 2004.”

The marine bin on Lake Huron was also taken out in 2019, he noted. “But at this point, we are now in the process of growing again.”

With the Avery Quarry, the rock will initially be shipped out by truck. But USG is looking at installing rail again, and is even investigating whether it makes sense to go back on the water at some point. “So all those possibilities exist for us,” Craig said. “We’ve got a very bright future, there’s a lot of demand for the product and a lot of need for it.”

As for an estimated time line, he shared that USG has submitted its application, which is going through the public notice phase, and that technical review of the permit is also occurring. This process will take at least until the end of June, but possibly longer since the state and EPA need an opportunity to review it, look at the numbers, ask questions and so on.

Craig adds that USG has put in a lot of monitoring wells to track surface water elevations, and have also done studies to make sure they don’t drain all the surrounding land in part of that process.

It depends on the permit, but he said that once this in place, USG is anticipating about eight months of work before they can start extracting the first gypsum in the new quarry. “And our plan is that most of the work will be done by the current employees who are there; who are mining the last of the rock out of our current quarry, which we call the Northwest Quarry.”

While awaiting the new quarry, staff continue to work in the meantime. Alabaster Operations Manager Jim Sheehan says that they are still selling some of the rock which exists there and continue to ship it to USG’s plant in River Rouge, as well, where it will go on to be used in agricultural and industrial products, for glass manufacturing, in the creation of fireproof/fire-resistant materials and more.

Workers at the current quarry are also stockpiling shale, which is being used to develop a haul road for the new operations.

Once up and running, the Avery Quarry will produce approximately 500,000 tons of gypsum annually and add full-time, living-wage jobs to the area. Craig says that the company has already started hiring more employees in anticipation of this.

As reported, USG began decreasing its production in 2019, due to the limited reserves of gypsum rock at the existing quarry. It was noted that layoffs were possible for some of the 23 employees who were working there at the time, but the site was running out of gypsum faster than anticipated and production had to be slowed while USG worked to get the next site permitted and operating.

According to Craig, they were down to six employees at one point, but now have 18 workers as the company prepares to open the new quarry. There will be even more hiring to come and, while the thought is to have at least 24 employees, it’s most likely going to grow beyond that.

“The demand for the product is very substantial and 24 is what we’re going to need, on the low end of that scale,” he told council members. “And I don’t think we’ll be that low for very long.”

USG completed its agreement with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 2018 to purchase the 580 acres of land for $3.45 million. The new quarry property sits immediately adjacent to the west boundary of the existing quarry, which is south of Tawas City, and is still in Alabaster Township.

According to representatives, USG is committed to being a good steward of our natural resources. They have applied to EGLE for a permit, which is required any time human activity impacts wetlands.

If USG is unable to open a new quarry, it will likely be forced to use imported material until it can identify and create a new quarry someplace else; however, no other locations in Michigan have demonstrated economically obtainable gypsum. Company officials state that if the Alabaster operations closed permanently, it could have economic ramifications beyond Iosco County. The quarry serves the USG factory near Detroit, which makes Durock brand cement board, as well as a variety of other Michigan businesses.

Craig also said that the gypsum in Alabaster is particularly sought after due to its very high purity level. The local supply is special because of its brightness, as well, which appeals to the customers who want white gypsum, and gives USG the opportunity to serve those markets.

For those who may be wondering why the company doesn’t quarry gypsum away from wetlands, he explained that there really isn’t anywhere else to go, since this is where the rock is.

Simply put, according to information from USG, gypsum occurs where it occurs. It’s a calcium-based mineral located in the ground, so quarries must be developed where the rock is. In the case of Iosco County, more of the landscape is wetland than not. The gypsum reserves on USG’s property are very high quality – some of the finest in the country. Siting a quarry which would not impact wetlands in Alabaster Township is nearly impossible, so the company is working with state regulators on a plan that minimizes wetland disturbance and mitigates the impacts by restoring and protecting wetlands elsewhere in the watershed.

Craig says that in conjunction with working on the permit steps for the future quarry, they have also been designing the replacement wetlands and figuring out other mitigation details that will have to be done for the land used by USG.

Once the new quarry opens, staff will use one section of it at a time, lasting for about 50 years.

Craig elaborated on this, first explaining that a quarry is a broad term for an excavating operation. Within the quarry operation, each pit is called a bench.

Although USG purchased 580 acres to create the Avery Quarry, he said that this includes ample buffer acreage to help them be a good neighbor. The actual quarry footprint for Phase One is closer to 50 acres total. Once that 50-acre bench is depleted, it will be filled and reclaimed, then another quarry bench will be opened and so on. The lakes are then created by the final bench.

“All the planned benches in the quarry over next 50 years or so will total approximately 400 acres,” Craig stated. But for now, the focus is on the Phase One acreage.

As for the expected longevity of the Avery Quarry, he said it depends on a lot of unknown factors, mostly related to market demand for gypsum. However, what is known, is that the new setup will serve the region’s gypsum needs for decades ahead.

When removal of the deposits is complete, the areas are restored to create wetlands, lakes, forests and prairies, which is done according to township ordinances and environmental permits. USG notes that its long track record on the land in Alabaster as visible proof of their commitment to restoring the landscape when the work is done.

For example, USG has been hosting Free Fishing Weekend events at the property for the last few years, welcoming the community to fish the ponds on the reclaimed land of its current quarry, which are teeming with a variety of species.

Craig states that these fish are native species which have migrated in naturally over the past 50-plus years. The only stocking done by USG, was to put local minnows into the lakes a few years ago to see if it would reduce pressure on some of the panfish populations and provide forage for some of the carnivorous species. “Given the popularity of the Free Fishing Weekend events, USG is working to keep the fishery healthy to provide great fishing opportunities for those events.”

He pointed out that all of the water bodies on USG property are former quarries.

This includes a former mining pit that was depleted in 1999, was restored and is now known as Pilot Lake. Sheehan says that the lake has an average depth of about 30 feet.

And because there are no chemicals used in procuring the gypsum, the water bodies can naturalize on their own.

Craig went over this, as well, at the Tawas City Council meeting. He said that they remove the dirt, remove the gypsum and then put the dirt back. “The only thing we discharge is groundwater.” When they dig a hole in the ground, water is going to flow in. “And we have a permit to pump that water out. The water then goes through our lakes, before it enters Lake Huron.”

Staff closely monitor the quantity and quality of water and regularly report that data to the state of Michigan. The state also tests to make sure that no sediment from the operation enters Lake Huron.

For the actual collection of gypsum, because the reserves in Iosco County are close enough to the surface, they can be obtained through a quarry process, which is different from an underground mine. Surface soils and clays are cleared until the gypsum layer is exposed, and machines similar to road resurfacing equipment essentially mow rows of gypsum approximately 12 inches thick. The materials are crushed and sorted by size on-site, and transported by truck to manufacturing operations and other businesses across Michigan and North America.

USG officials say that this process does not harm the environment. Gypsum is a very safe mineral, quarrying it is sustainable and its removal entails a mechanical process which does not use chemicals or create pollution.

When USG closes a gypsum quarry, they backfill the earth, create a natural landscape, plant native trees and welcome wildlife into the space. The company is already reclaiming large sections of its existing quarry with wetland creation and enhancement, timber management and control of invasive species.

Craig, who also works at the River Rouge plant, says it’s interesting to see some of the historical areas that were mined more than 100 years ago in Alabaster, and how active they are today with wildlife, lakes, fish and so forth.

A group of whitetail deer is one example witnessed by this reporter, during the recent tour.

Some have questioned if there will be blasting as part of the new quarry, and the company reports that limited blasting is needed in their operations today. On average, they blast three to eight times per year to create holes to collect water from the quarry or access the deeper layers of gypsum. No explosive materials are kept on site, and are brought in only as needed.

Tawas City Mayor Pro Tem Brian McMurray, during the council meeting, commented that he was surprised at how infrequent the blasting occurs.

Craig said that part of their process involves opening a bench, and these are about 200 feet wide by 1,000 feet long. They dig down to the surface of the gypsum, which is mined with what he likened to a converted road planer. “But as part of that process, we have to deal with water.”

So the workers go to the lowest point of the bench and blast a hole, which allows them to collect the water and pump it out. They typically do two blasts per pit, and Craig said that currently, they go through maybe one pit every two years. “But the plan with the new quarry would be two pits a year. So that would be four blasts. And these are relatively small blasts.”

He noted that the outside company which brings in the materials to perform the blasting also sets up seismic equipment to monitor the activity, so that USG knows if there were any shock waves that went out and would have disturbed anybody. “And typically for us, the seismic devices do not record anything.”

Company officials state that USG has a documented, century-long record as a responsible custodian of the natural resources entrusted to them. They work in close partnership with local, state and national authorities to respect environmental concerns and restore impacted areas to a natural state.

“We started here and we want to stay here” is an adage that has been expressed by both Craig and other USG representatives. Although they had a temporary production slowdown during the past couple years, they are now eagerly looking forward to developing the new quarry that will secure gypsum reserves – and permanent jobs to the community – for years to come.

As for what USG intends to do with the existing quarry once it’s no longer operating, Craig says they currently plan to keep and maintain it, and that the priority will be the reclamation work.

Along with what has already been mentioned, USG says that some of the other benefits which will come with the development of the Avery Quarry include, meeting the state’s goal of supporting and strengthening the resource-based economy; putting nearly 600 acres of land back on regular tax rolls to support local public services and schools; supporting the DNR’s conservation projects in the region; and contributing to the economic recovery from the pandemic, by providing building supplies to a booming construction market.

The continuation of quarrying gypsum locally will also allow for the continuation of USG’s public engagement. In addition to hosting the Free Fishing events, employees are involved in the community, attend local governmental meetings and support area businesses.

The company has also teamed with Michigan Sea Grant, Michigan State University Extension, Project Fish and others to explore development of an ongoing summer youth fishing program to encourage recreational fishing and educate children about the natural environment and ecosystems.

Additionally, Craig says that when USG purchased the land in 2018, they immediately put a total of 1,000 acres into public access through the state’s Hunting Access Program (HAP). “We realize outdoor recreation is important to people in the area. As a landowner, we support that as best we can.”

Further, USG has contributed to Habitat for Humanity, the American Red Cross, United Way, Huron Pines, the Tawas City Fire Department, the Iosco County Historical Museum and more.

Staff have given tours to a number of different entities and individuals, as well, including school groups, Sunrise Side Lifelong Learning members, local officials and those from the public.

“I highly recommend you go. It’s very interesting,” Tawas City Manager Annge Horning told council members at their meeting, after Craig confirmed that tours of the facility will again be provided.

Councilman Ed Nagy added that the handouts shared by USG for the meeting were very informative and well put together. “Having lived here a long time, I didn’t know a lot of this stuff. Thank you.”

More workers and more land in support of the Avery Quarry also means that more equipment is needed, and USG has already tackled a big chunk of this task. For example, the company recently purchased three Volvo A60H trucks, which are the largest articulated haulers in the world.

In reference to the quarry’s namesake, Craig said that Avery’s father was a timberman who purchased the Alabaster quarry site in about 1895. Avery and his brother were running the quarry when USG formed in 1902, upon merging several manufacturing/quarry sites.

Avery became the president of USG – a position he held for 30 years – and helped grow the company during that time, even throughout the Great Depression.

According to representatives, USG has grown into an international company, with 6,900 employees across North America and operations around the world. The business is a leading manufacturer of building products and innovative solutions, with one of its most well-known products being Sheetrock® drywall.