Sand and gravel production in North Dakota reached new highs with the spike in oil activity and associated road construction in recent years, sending mineral prospectors to scour the countryside for even more of the resources.
A number of gravel pits have popped up around Ward County. The exact number isn't known because the county doesn't issue permits to track them.
"There's a lot of them," Ward County highway engineer Dana Larsen said of pits known to exist. "There's always been quite a few, but a lot of them are expanding, and they have added a bunch of new ones."
Gravel is mined from a pit in Burke County near Lostwood Wildlife Refuge in this past August photo from Aggregate Construction.
Mining equipment works to extract gravel from a pit near Rice Lake in July 2012 in this photo from Aggregate Construction.
Neighboring Mountrail County, which has a permit system, is in the process of adding a couple of new permits to its current total of 124. McHenry County permitted two new pits this year after several years with no new permits, but the county doesn't have a total count because some pits were grandfathered when its permit system was adopted.
Statistics from the State Geologist show sand and gravel production in North Dakota increased from about 1.6 million cubic yards to about 5.9 million cubic yards from 2009 to 2011, according to a 2012 report prepared for the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources.
A recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey listed North Dakota as one of five leading states in production for consumption of construction sand and gravel.
The competition for gravel can be keen in some parts of the state.
Max Schriock, prospector and safety director for Aggregate Construction, Minot, said the need for gravel in the oil fields along with the demand for higher quality gravel for North Dakota Department of Transportation projects have forced contractors to look harder and travel farther to obtain supplies. He has worked with landowners to acquire new sources for his company, but local sources can be hard to find in western North Dakota.
"A lot of pits are depleted in the local area. Now we are having to go to regional and more established sources, and transportation is becoming a fairly significant issue," Schriock said.
One anecdotal account indicated gravel was being hauled 105 miles to a project. Schriock said bringing gravel 60 to 70 miles has become necessary in eastern McKenzie County, where gravel in the oil field exceeds the local area's ability to supply it.
"There just isn't any aggregate sources left out there. They have pretty much been gobbled up," Schriock said.
The southwestern part of the state has been importing gravel from Montana to get the quantity of quality product needed, he added.
North Dakota's glaciated till results largely in gravel sources that lie near the surface. The 2012 report from the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources noted that the vast majority of gravel pits are 25 feet deep or less, with an average of 15 feet.
Schriock said many of the small pits opened in recent years for mining will have a three- to four-year service life.
As time goes on, Schriock predicts, more gravel will be brought in from farther and farther away.
"There's still gravel to be found, but it's getting more and more difficult," he said. "I don't think it's very far in the future we are going to see some railing of aggregate."
In 2012, just 16 counties, primarily in west-central North Dakota, had permitting requirements for gravel pits. Five others had some form of permitting, depending on the volume of sand and gravel excavated.
The Ward County Planning Commission has considered instituting a permit process but has taken no action.
Permitting would aid in addressing potential traffic and road-wear issues, Larsen said. It also could include requirements for land reclamation when mining is completed.
Mountrail County's permit system requires crushing companies to provide road maintenance, dust control and post bond for reclamation. County commissioner Arlo Borud, Stanley, said the county updated its rules in recent years but has been requiring permits for a number of years.
"I welcome the permitting system that Mountrail County has imposed because it's injected some discipline into the manner in which pits are operated," said Harley Neshem, president of Gratech, a construction company located in the Ward County community of Berthold, not far from the Mountrail County line.
"Everything Mountrail County is doing is good, in my estimation. It tends to weed out those who don't prefer to play by the rules," he said, noting the reclamation problems that some Ward County landowners have had in allowing out-of-state crushing companies on their lands. "The only shortcoming to the system is that it takes some time to get a gravel pit permitted. In our short season, that becomes problematic."
Notification requirements that involve publication and the need for action by zoning boards that may meet only once a month can delay a permit by two months, which can be significant, he explained. However, he said, the advantages of permitting, including reclamation bonds, weigh heavily in favor of permits.