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But now, as another building boom rumbles across Los Angeles and a new generation of high-rises climbs skyward, the rock and sand are coming from a much more distant source: Canadas Vancouver Island, more than 1,400 miles away.
Consider a new apartment building going up at 12th Street and Grand Avenue in downtown L.A. On a gloomy Halloween morning, two dozen workers poured the concrete that will form the 28th of the buildings 38 stories.
Before that wet concrete was leveled and smoothed, before it was pumped to the top of the building, before it was mixed together at a plant near Vernon, it started out as cement powder, water, sand and gravel.
There, near the logging town of Port McNeil, Polaris Materials and the indigenous Namgis First Nation own the Orca Quarry, a site where long-melted glaciers some 10,000 years ago deposited layers of sand and gravel as thick as 300 feet.
The materials, known in the construction business as aggregate, are scraped from the sides of the quarry pit, washed, sorted into piles and loaded onto conveyor belts that stretch more than a mile to a terminal floating on the Broughton Strait.
Conveyor belts stretching from the ship to the terminal can offload 2,000 to 3,000 tons of material an hour, taking as long as 40 hours to empty a full ship. The terminal, little more than a parking lot for aggregate, has room for about 120,000 tons of material.
The fact that Polaris can move its aggregate from a Canadian quarry all the way to Long Beach without being transported by road is one of the reasons its feasible to export such heavy, cheap material over such a long distance.
Warren Coalson, a consultant to California mine and quarry operators, estimates it costs $220 to haul a standard 25-ton truckload on a 25-mile trip in L.A. traffic. That works out to about 35 cents per ton per mile.
That leads to some striking math: To ship 1 ton of rock over 1,450 miles of ocean to Long Beach costs about $7.25. To truck it from Long Beach to downtown L.A., about 25 miles, adds an additional $8.75. And at $16 combined, thats less than the $22.75 it might cost to truck a ton of aggregate on the 65-mile trip from a quarry in Palmdale to downtown.
L.A.s local sand and gravel supplies arent as local as they used to be. With most of Irwindales quarries now vacant pits, projects might get aggregate from as far away as Palmdale or Victorville. San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area, too, are having to tap increasingly distant sources.
A 2012 report from the California state geologist estimates that quarries in Los Angeles County and the Bay Area have permits to produce less than one-third of the aggregate that will be needed over the next 50 years. San Diego, which already imports aggregate from Mexico, is in even worse shape.
Its not that California doesnt have enough sand and gravel. But as development has sprawled, quarries or potential quarry sites that were once in sparsely populated areas are now surrounded by people who dont want the attendant noise, pollution and truck traffic.
Mexican construction materials giant Cemex tried for decades to get permits for a quarry in the Santa Clarita Valley but faced fierce opposition from residents and city officials. Now, Cemex is planning to haul rock and sand by rail from its White Mountain quarry in Victorville to a depot in Bell, a 100-mile journey.
Alabama concrete giant Vulcan Materials announced plans to buy Polaris in August for just shy of $200 million, a bid that was quickly topped by a $240-million offer from Texas-based U.S. Concrete. The deal would give U.S. Concrete a way to expand into Southern California without the difficult task of buying or building a quarry of its own.
Its hard to build a new quarry anywhere in California, said Brent Thielman, an analyst at brokerage D.A. Davidson & Co. Its the cost of the real estate, the environmental permitting, the regulation. All of that comes with the territory.
Polaris started shipping aggregate to Long Beach last year, but has been hauling rock and sand to Honolulu and the Bay Area since 2007. The company has said it wants to export to more markets, including San Diego and Ventura County.
Its not the only company importing sand and gravel into the U.S., but the practice remains relatively rare. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that domestic builders used about 1 billion tons of aggregate last year, and that only about 3 million tons were imported mostly from Canada.
Sometimes, its the result of a building boom that outstrips local supply. Thats the case in China, which in 2015 imported $2.3 billion worth of sand and gravel, according to United Nations trade statistics.
In other cases, local materials simply arent suitable. Qatar and Kuwait were among the top global importers of sand and gravel in 2015, according to U.N. data. Theres plenty of sand in both Persian Gulf nations, but of the wrong sort. Desert sand, formed by wind, is too smooth for making concrete. Coarser sand formed by rivers and glaciers is preferred.
And while logistics is part of the reason Los Angeles builders are buying Vancouver Island gravel, quality is a factor, too. The gravel from the Orca quarry is mostly basalt, a fine-grained volcanic rock thats harder and denser than the mixture of granite, quartz and schist that are washed out of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Polaris and its local customers say that makes Orca material a preferred choice for making the high-strength concrete used in the floor slabs of new downtown high-rises and in elements of the forthcoming Rams and Chargers stadium in Inglewood.
Material from Southern California quarries generally costs $12 or $13 a ton, said Coalson, the quarry consultant. Polaris aggregate sells for closer to $20 a ton. But builders say the higher quality material actually saves them money elsewhere.
If youre laying down a sidewalk, you can use whatever aggregate you want. But to make high-performance concrete, the materials matter. Use lower-quality sand and gravel and youll need to add a larger amount of cement, said Todd Lamberty, a project manager for construction firm Webcor Builders.
The aggregate thats locally mined is pretty poor quality in terms of its shear strength, said Lamberty, who is overseeing cement work at several downtown projects using Polaris products. You end up putting a ton of cement in the mix to make up for that, and cement is the most expensive component.
Rick Lance, a concrete place and finish superintendent for Webcor, said he has found that concrete with Polaris aggregate cracks less than other mixes. As workers smoothed out freshly placed concrete, Lance plucked a few pieces of gravel out of the wet gray glop.
On Oct. 31, workers poured concrete for the 17,000-square-foot 28th floor. For that floor alone, Webcor used 436 cubic yards of concrete made with nearly 720 tons of sand and gravel that was scraped from the Vancouver Island quarry pit. The company has 10 more floors to go.
In early 2019, residents of the 536-unit apartment building will take in views of a changing L.A. skyline. Theyll join the new residents of the Metropolis and Oceanwide Plaza all of whom will be standing on millions of pieces of British Columbia.
James Rufus Koren covered banking and finance for the Los Angeles Times. He previously wrote for the Los Angeles Business Journal, where he covered banking, manufacturing and other industries, and for daily newspapers in Southern California and rural Michigan. He was raised in St. Louis and small-town Iowa, headed west to study at the University of Southern California and now lives in Long Beach.
A small but visible handful of urban Chinese are rattling the ruling Communist Party by choosing to lie flat, or reject high-status careers, long work hours and expensive cities for what is called a low-desire life.