By Sunny Freeman

China has devoured more sand in the past four years than the United States did throughout the 20th century. Dubai, a city built on a desert, had to import the sand used in the world’s tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa, from Australia. In India, sand has become such a hot commodity that it has been taken over by “sand mafias” who illegally mine and sell it on the black market.

The demand for sand is on the rise as urban development around the world soars and hydraulic fracturing technology becomes more popular in places such as the U.S. and Alberta.

Though most people have never thought twice about the supply of the seemingly plentiful grains, a growing number of observers are ringing the alarm that the global supply of sand is slipping through our fingers.

Sand and its larger cousin, gravel, are better known in the industrial realm as “aggregate,” the key ingredients in concrete, asphalt and glass used in everything from highways to skyscrapers.

The demand for construction aggregates will rise 5.2 per cent annually to 51.7 billion tons in 2019, according to researcher Freedonia Group. Some estimate sand’s share of the aggregate business is already worth US$70 billion in annual sales.

A 2014 United Nations Environment Programme report, Sand, Rarer Than One Thinks, determined that sand and gravel mining accounts for as much as 85 per cent of all mining activity in the world and concluded that the depletion rate of sand is rapidly exceeding its natural renewal rate worldwide.

As a result, some Canadian sand companies are booming due to an increase in demand for oilsands fracking and exports to markets that have already depleted their supplies.

At the same time, industry players in some areas such as Greater Toronto Area (GTA) are warning about a shortage of the construction staple not because of demand-driven depletion, but because of local opposition to getting it out of the ground.

Decades of rapid urbanization and suburbanization in the GTA have put residents ever closer and closer to sand and gravel quarries and pits that once seemed relegated to the rural outskirts.

Residents associations have banded together to try to stop new quarries and pits from being built on the edge of their backyards. They’re worried about air and noise pollution as much as the effect on their property values.

Such opposition has shut down three applications for new pits and quarries in the past decade and has led to a shortage of local sand that, of course, built the homes that house even the most vocal opponents, said Greg Sweetnam, vice-president of James Dick Construction, which operates a pit in Caledon, Ont., about 75 kilometres outside downtown Toronto.

Greg Sweetnam the executive vice-president of James Dick Aggregates is seen at the Caledon Sand and Gravel pits in Caledon, Ont.

Sweetnam, who has worked for his father-in-law’s family-run operation for 37 years, gets frustrated when he talks about the predicament his company is in with its neighbours. He just doesn’t understand their logic, especially if they want to cloak their concerns in environmentalism.

The industry believes keeping supply local is both more cost effective and environmentally friendly than shipping material from hundreds of kilometres away. But building new quarries in the GTA, home to many high-quality deposits, has been nearly impossible due to what Sweetnam said is simple “NIMBYism.”

The showdown between neighbours is likely to escalate as the GTA’s population growth spurs demand for the sand and gravel needed for new houses, schools and office buildings.

“Everybody uses aggregate,” Sweetnam said during a recent tour of James Dick Construction’s sand and gravel pit in Caledon,

“We drive on it, we live inside it, we work inside it, we even brush our teeth with it and at some point we have to understand that we all have to accommodate this.”

The Ontario Stone Sand and Gravel Association (OSSGA) has decided to fight back against vocal anti-quarry opponents with a “buy local” public awareness campaign. Posters, already up in downtown Toronto bus stops, try to educate city dwellers who are largely unaware of both the importance of sand to their infrastructure and the issues it is causing in nearby townships.

Sand had to be imported to build Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.

The organization said local opposition or NIMBYism has worked its way into government processes that have become more rigorous in recent years. It said the provincial government’s new review and consultation process is drawing out the permitting process for new pits and quarries to between five and 10 years.

At the same time, the government has also limited prospects for new pits and quarries by expanding protected areas that are off limits to development, said OSSGA executive director Norman Cheesman.

“We continue to use resources faster than we’re replacing them,” he said. “It’s going to become a challenge. We’re going to have to be going further afield to get that aggregate and that means higher costs.”

Those costs will likely be passed down the supply chain to builders, developers and homeowners.

Transportation comprises 50 to 60 per cent of the cost of aggregates. And that — not the environment — is why the industry is so intent on keeping pits close to residential areas, said Bob Shapton, spokesman for Pitsense, an anti-aggregate development group and 30-year neighbour of James Dick Construction’s sand and gravel operations.

The aggregate industry, he said, is in the business to make money. There’s nothing wrong with that, he said, but the neighbours also have a monetary interest in their property and the company needs to accommodate them.

“The neighbours adjacent to any of these developments are suffering from the prospect of health impacts and the prospect of the certainty of the diminution in property values which the operators deny,” Shapton said.

The neighbours, he added, would be more likely to be on board if the operators that are proposing new sites would be willing to compensate residents for the potential to hurt their property values as well as for any social and health impacts.

“There are ways that people can get along and there should be no losers.”

Financial Post