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Demand For Sand: Prices Increasing For Limited Resource

(Lindsey Wright, WFIU/WTIU News)

Sand is a hotter commodity than the average person might think.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the cost per ton used for construction in the state has increased about 30 percent since 2012. That’s significant because different types of sand are used in almost all aspects of construction from road projects to buildings and houses.

Suppliers say in order to keep up with demand, they need more access to the source of the product.

The Brookfield Sand and Gravel mine. (Lindsey Wright, WFIU/WTIU News)

Joe McCurdy has owned Brookfield Sand and Gravel for about 25 years. He started the Indianapolis supply company because he noticed a demand for a quality product.

Today, perhaps more than ever, the demand for sand still exists.

"The economy is like a giant roller coaster," McCurdy says. "And when the economy is on the way up, then there’s more used."

Sand is used in everything from concrete to asphalt to glass. And in Bartholomew County, for example, it’s used to help de-ice around 700 miles of rural roads. The county mixes the sand with salt.

"Cuts down on the expense of using pure salt and the sand provides some traction for people to drive on while the snow is melting," says County Engineer Danny Hollander. 

Hollander says it’s not uncommon for sand prices to increase slightly each year. But this year, the county will pay 53 percent more for sand than it did in 2018. 

Although the county typically uses around 5,000 tons of sand each winter, Hollander says the increase won’t be the end of the world.

Still, it’s a significant jump. And it’s just one example highlighting the demand for sand, a finite resource, that industry leaders say could eventually get a bit harder to find.  

Sand is tested in a lab at Brookfield Sand and Gravel. (Lindsey Wright, WFIU/WTIU News)

Sand is a sediment broken down from larger rocks. Lee Florea from the Indiana Geological and Water Survey says that process pretty much happens everywhere to varying degrees.

"In a climate such as Indiana where you have significant rainfall, the movement of water is a very effective abrasive agent that breaks down and weathers rocks," Florea says. 

And in order to access it, companies like Brookfield open sand mines and dig it up, separating clumps of various sediment into specific piles.

The company even does testing to ensure they know what’s coming out of the ground. McCurdy says customers need to know exactly what they’re getting.

Trucks drive in, load up with sand and off they go, almost like a drive through.  

"It is used in so many different things with the glass products, the concrete products, asphault products, home building, recreational use, we’ve produced sand for race tracks before, horse race tracks," McCurdy says. 

To keep up with demand, industry leaders say they need to open more areas to prospect the material.

But the permitting process can be brutal. McCurdy says because there are so many checks and balances, it can take up to 10 years before a mine can operate.

"There’s the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and then you have the department of IDEM, you have the Army Corps of Engineers, so you have a lot of people that get involved with the permitting process and you have local ordinance and regional ordinance you have to conform with," he says. 

Plus there’s often outcry from residents who don’t want to see this in their backyard.   

"Most local governments are in favor of it until they get remonstration or get some push back on it," says Mike Shumaker, owner of Concrete Industries and a consultant in aggregate business. 

Shumaker says Indiana still has plenty of sand and gravel deposits right now, but they need to access them in order to keep up with the market. 

"It’s a supply and demand business and we’re also regulated on how far we can haul a product," Shumaker says. "It’s a very bulky product, we can’t import this from other parts of the world let alone other parts of the state very economically, it just doesn’t work that way."

McCurdy says Brookfield is going through the approval process to open another mine and will likely take a few more years before it gets off the ground.

He believes, just like the economy, the demand for sand will level off eventually. But right now he plans to meet consumer needs. 

"It’s a product that we all use although we don’t really realize it," McCurdy says. 

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