In the height of its season, the 2,400-acre Sandusky Crushed Stone quarry on Portland Road is unusually quiet. There are fewer blasts and far less truck traffic.
The workers here have come to expect overtime hours during the summer, but most aren't getting more than 40 hours a week.
Others aren't working at all after the quarry's parent company, Hanson Aggregates, laid off about 20 workers between the Portland Road facility and the Wagner Quarry on U.S. 250 earlier this season.
Like many in the aggregate industry, the company is finding itself stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Construction of homes, buildings and infrastructure is down, while the costs of utilities and diesel fuel that power the plants are soaring.
"We're trying to manage our inventory levels, use the bare necessities and forgo the luxuries," said Blake Silkwood, area manager for Hanson Aggregates, which also operates Flat Rock Quarry in Bellevue and the Bloomville Quarry in Seneca County. He said he expects to shut down operations earlier than usual this year at several quarries.
Though the Sandusky Crushed Stone plant recently expanded, giving it reserves for at least the next 60-70 years, Silkwood said Wagner Quarry has virtually run out of room to grow.
"It has a limited life, depending on sales levels," he said of the nearly 100-year-old plant, "but at some point, it will cease to be active."
A solid foundation
The Sandusky area has relied on limestone since the city was founded in the early 1800s, with a large deposit of high-grade limestone lying just beneath the surface in Perkins Township.
Records show quarry operations began in the Castalia area as early as the 1870s, with stone used mainly as a guard against shoreline erosion until the late 1920s. Operations there were shut down for more than 25 years during and after the Great Depression and restarted in 1954 by Wagner Quarries to fuel turnpike construction. By 1987, the Reserve area south of Ohio 101 was no longer in use and was deeded to Erie MetroParks. Wagner Quarry of Sandusky donated the 110-acre parcel located south of Ohio 101, and the park district purchased the remaining 42 acres of property north of Ohio 101, forming one of the county's largest parks.
Today, more than 9 million tons of limestone products are produced each year in Erie County alone, according to academic sources. It is a construction staple, used in not only houses and highways but also along bridges, sewer lines and septic tanks.
Ohio has long been known as the sandstone capital of the world, with a well-established foundation built 140 years ago by Cleveland Quarries in Amherst.
The Berea sandstone found at the Amherst quarries is so resistant to weathering that it must be cut with diamond saw blades.
An energy-heavy process
The process of blasting and crushing stone is heavily dependent on energy. Workers from a contracted company drill holes into the ledges of stone several days a week and load the holes with dynamite, preparing to blast as much as 40,000 tons at a time.
Blasting at Sandusky Crushed Stone used to take place on an almost daily basis, Silkwood said, but lately the frequency of blasts has been cut in half.
The pit superintendent determines which ledges are drilled next, depending on the type of stone needed. After a blast, early morning crews fill front-end loaders with up to 20 tons of stone at a time, using 1,000-horsepower equipment. The plant will consume an average of 20,000 gallons of diesel fuel in a single week.
From there, stone is taken to the primary crusher, where it is broken into large chunks used mostly for landscaping and erosion control. Under a secondary crusher, the rocks are broken down further, and some go through even more extensive processing at a third site, where they are fed through screens to remove excess material. Some of the material is pulverized to a fine dust and used to neutralize soil in farming operations.
With the quarry pits reaching below sea level, as much as 7 million gallons of excess water are pumped daily into Mills Creek and Pipe Creek, Silkwood said. Like many quarries, they plan their heaviest operations for the early morning and late night hours to avoid the high costs of electricity at peak hours.
The future for several of the area's quarries remains unknown, but many quarries throughout Ohio have already come and gone. Some are re-zoned for commercial development after being issued "end of life" permits by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, while others become popular tourist destinations.
The Flat Rock quarry in Bellevue has not been in production mode since 2004, though it remains open for sales.
On Kelleys Island, the manager of the Lafarge-owned quarry announced earlier this week he planned to shut down temporarily, laying off 13 of the plant's 15 employees.
"We're being very optimistic," plant manager Jeff Grashel said, citing a sluggish economy and high fuel costs as contributing factors. "We have seven boatloads sitting out there now, but we have stockpiles in our other markets, so that has to move first."
Operations at Cleveland Quarries in Amherst were moved to Vermilion after California developer Stu Lichter of the Industrial Realty Group purchased the property to construct a 1,150-unit housing project. The $500 million area will be complete with outdoor and indoor pools, a marina, equestrian center and hiking trails, quarry president Russ Ciphers said.
National Lime & Stone Co. in Bucyrus is still going strong, plant manager Eric Johnson said, but there's no question they're feeling the pinch. Officials at the 1,800-acre plant, operating since 1903, are in the process of assessing procedures to determine how they can conserve costs.
"Energy is really putting us in a bind," Johnson said. "It's 30 percent of our operating costs. We've looked at basically trying to be more efficient in operations -- insulating our dryer to conserve heat, shutting down equipment when it's not in use and running the plant during off-peak hours."
The plant, which provides shingle filler for Owens-Corning in Medina, scaled back its staff this spring and now employs about 36 people.
From digging to diving
The small town of Gibsonburg in Sandusky County, once dubbed the quarry capital of the world, is now home to a popular inland diving site.
White Star Park is an 800-acre property converted from a former quarry. The pit's average depth of 50 feet and clear spring water make it ideal for scuba divers, snorkelers or swimmers, co-owner Dick Synowiec said. Divers can use oddities like a motorcycle, stone crusher, Frito Lay truck -- even a toilet -- as platforms.
The quarry remained in production from the 1920s through the 50s, and operators shut off pumps to allow it to fill with water during the 1970s. In 1980 it opened to the public and was later sold to the Sandusky County Park District. Zebra mussels found their way into the water, which increased the water's clarity, Park District Director Steve Gruner said.
"Depending on the activity going on, visibility can be as much as 50 feet," Gruner said. "What makes our facilities unique is people can bring their whole family."
Several other condemned quarries -- one in Bowling Green and another in Gilboa -- have also been converted for diving and recreation.
With its high exposure to summer tourists, Silkwood said the Wagner Quarry property could one day make an attractive development -- or a giant swimming hole.