QUINTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Many who packed the planning board meeting would be dead, their graves grown over with grass, before the miners would be done digging for sand.

So two dozen people sat in brown folding chairs in the tiny municipal building here on a Tuesday night earlier this month, imagining a 210-acre lake that doesn't exist — not yet — glistening, nameless, under some future Salem County sun.

Could it be dangerous, deep and cold, like other aquamarine, sandy lakes in New Jersey? Would it even be a lake?

"They call it a lake, but it is a pit," Steve Eisenhauer, of the nonprofit conservation group Natural Lands, told the board. "It's 40-foot deep, and it's water-filled."

Today, the site consists of two open sand mines on Route 49, three miles east of the municipal building. The land is mostly forested, with some water at the bottom of the mines, but Eastern Concrete Materials, a subsidiary of Texas-based U.S. Concrete, was seeking approval from the board to combine both properties and greatly expand the operation. The company hopes to extract 25.2 million cubic yards of material from 256 acres of the 396-acre tract over the next 30-plus years, depending on the market.

Sand is used to make concrete and glass, so it's everywhere, in the parking garages and the cars that park in them, in the gleaming skyscrapers and casinos of the world. The price of sand and gravel has risen steadily over the last decade, from $7.06 per ton in 2007 to $8.70 per ton in 2017.

U.S. Concrete does not disclose how much sand and gravel it currently mines each day in Quinton.

Entrance to Eastern Concrete Materials’ sand mine on Route 49 in Salem County
Jason Nark
Entrance to Eastern Concrete Materials’ sand mine on Route 49 in Salem County

Clint Allen, an attorney representing the company, propped large maps and blueprints on an easel, and used engineers, hydrologists, and traffic and wetlands experts to help explain each one. Skeptics in the audience mumbled under their breath. The room grew stuffy, and Eisenhauer cracked a back door open, the sounds of crickets in the dark fields outside sweeping in with cooler air.

Some residents questioned whether the company would mine at night. It wouldn't. Others worried the hundreds of trucks in and out each day would track sand into the road. The company said it was installing a tire wash along its driveway.

Those trucks were too slow when they pulled onto Route 49, some said. Others said the trucks drove too fast. "Yup, your drivers drive like –holes," one man said to a stone-faced mine employee seated behind him.

Some figured the mine would affect their property values.

"I'll be honest, my wife says it's time to go," resident Doug Brown said.

Staff Graphic

In recent years, as construction increased in Asia and the Middle East, experts have warned of a global sand shortage that has lured organized crime and less environmentally friendly extraction methods.

In the United States, the most recent U.S. Geological Survey estimated the sand and gravel industry as a $6.4 billion business, employing 34,781 at nearly 6,300 mines.  Eisenhauer estimates that 15 of those working sand pits are in Salem, Cumberland, Atlantic, and Cape May Counties.  The Quinton site alone employs 20.

Natural Lands, based in Media, manages publicly accessible, preserved land adjacent to the mines here in New Jersey's most rural county. Large sand mounds rise up just past the trees at the edge of its property.

Sand rises from the Eastern Concrete Materials’ mine in Quinton Township, Salem County.
Jason Nark
Sand rises from the Eastern Concrete Materials’ mine in Quinton Township, Salem County.

Like many sand, rock, and gravel mining operations, a lake would be left behind when the work is completed decades from now. U.S. Concrete is required to put $8,000 per acre into an escrow account for reclamation of the property and said 700 trees, 700 shrubs, and 1,000 wetlands plants would be dispersed around it.

Eisenhauer had a very specific concern about that future lake, though. The bottom, according to a blueprint, would slope gently down from the shoreline for 25 feet, then drop off to 40 feet, which he considered dangerous.  In the height of summer, when the water table can be lower and the shoreline recedes, people who try to swim there would find the drop-off even closer.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is a huge problem," he said.

Andre Raichle, an engineer for Eastern Concrete Materials, said the township had set no maximum depth after the 25-foot slope.

Often called "blue holes," these old sand mining pits are common in southern and central New Jersey, popping out on aerial maps like jewels. A New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection report from 1991 counted dozens of them alone in Salem County, some over a century old.

When mining is finished, companies try to sell the properties. They become housing developments, wildlife management areas, or acreage protected by nonprofits like Natural Lands.

Some are abandoned.

No matter who owns them or who fences them and posts "No Trespassing" signs, New Jersey's sand lakes lure people in. They're hot spots for dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles, fishermen, garbage dumpers, swimmers, anyone looking to drink a beer by a bonfire, then shoot the bottles with pellet guns.

Last year, police in Winslow Township, Camden County, started cracking down on a state-owned sand pit there that's become  a headache.

"We have received numerous complaints of trespassing and ATVs and have responded to multiple drownings over the years," the department announced on its Facebook page.

An abandoned sand/gravel mining pit in Downe Township, Cumberland County, owned by Natural Lands. Eisenhauer said the lakes are dangerous, with deep, cold drop-offs.
Jason Nark
An abandoned sand/gravel mining pit in Downe Township, Cumberland County, owned by Natural Lands. Eisenhauer said the lakes are dangerous, with deep, cold drop-offs.

In Quinton, the planning board eventually approved Eastern Concrete Materials' plan after several hours.

The company, Mayor Marjorie Sperry said, "did every single thing they were told they needed to do."

"We have no ground to deny them," said Sperry, also a planning board member.

In a statement, U.S. Concrete COO Ronnie Pruitt said the company was committed to being a steward in Quinton.  As for decades from now, Pruitt said  that "any decision regarding the property's end-use will be made with the goal of maximizing the value of the land for the betterment of the community and our business."

Sperry, 64, said she would like to see the property used for recreation when the mine closes.

But she probably won't be around to see it, she said.

"You can either look at this cup as being half-empty or half-full," she said. "The township has to allow this, so why not think of this as half-full?"