Etched in Stone

The world is agreed that labor is the source from which human wants are mainly supplied.

— Abraham Lincoln

Many of us will go our whole lives without thinking about the resources it takes to make our roads, our phones, and other building blocks of modern life. But everything we use—if it isn’t grown—has to be mined.

That leaves one of the most important jobs up to those in the mines. These are the places where rocks and minerals are extracted and set on a journey to become hospitals, dams, highways, and homes. The people who work here enable us to get where we need to go and do what we need to do.

When the mine’s life is done, crews carry out plans to restore the earth as it was before the operation began. This process, known as reclamation, keeps the land healthy and usable for future generations.

Without miners, we’d be set back to a time before cement, metals, and other materials we depend on. Mining and reclamation keep our world moving while protecting the planet.

The Beginning

The open quarry reaches deep into the earth, exposing colorful layers of rock and sediment that lie beneath the Mojave Desert. 
High winds cool off the miners as they walk across the site under the hot Western sun. Heavy machines dot the site, their massive size dwarfed by the vastness of the quarry. It’s another day of blasting, digging, processing, and shipping at CalPortland’s Mojave cement plant.

When I tell people I'm a miner, they think that I go underground, mining underneath the earth, explains Luciano Cantu, a heavy equipment operator. But it’s an open quarry where the sun’s beaming down on us, and we get all the elements—rain, water, snow, sleet, everything.

Rain or shine, workers at the plant perform specialized roles to help produce cement, a foundational ingredient for nearly every part of our modern life. With so much heavy equipment, constant awareness is key.

You’ve got to have your head on a swivel because there's so much happening, Luciano says. The trucks are huge—you have to be very, very vigilant when you're working.

Getting cement from the earth to our bridges, sidewalks, and buildings is no simple process. It begins with intensive planning at the site. Teams measure out the drilling pattern, and once blasted, the site is excavated over several days. Limestone and other minerals will be crushed, mixed, and processed in several stages, forming the basis of cement.

Before working in the industry, I didn’t realize how much work it takes to make this stuff, Luciano says. We have to cook it, crush it, size it, follow a recipe. And we’ve been making concrete for thousands of years, which is pretty amazing.

Cement and concrete have both formed the foundation of civilization. Cement, a binding agent in concrete, was used between stones in Ancient Egyptian buildings. Concrete, which is made from cement, water, and other ingredients, enabled the Romans to build incredible structures like the Colosseum.

They say if it can't be grown or made, you have to mine it.

— Luciano Cantu

The manufacturing of cement and concrete has been refined over the centuries, but one thing has always remained the same. It still “starts with the guy with the shovel, the guy on the site,” as Luciano puts it. Only now, cement plants like this one operate on an enormous scale. That takes an impressive amount of teamwork and awareness.

One thing we all learn is to have trust in each other, Luciano says. Everybody checks to make sure everything is safe.

Jackie Sanchez, who works in the shipping department of the Mojave plant, echoes Luciano’s words about the importance of teamwork on the site.

You have to be aware all the time and communicate with the people around you, she explains.

Jackie’s been on the site for six months, enough time to understand the impact of her work.

A lot of people don’t know that cement’s basically used for everything, like freeways and stadiums, she says. Now that I work at a cement plant, I'm like, Oh, wow, I'm part of a huge process.

Or, as Luciano notes, that's the product of our hard work right there.

Protecting the Earth

While certain mining operations have a reputation for harming the environment, the same can’t be said for limestone mines. Thanks to a combination of environmental regulations and market forces, these mines are committed to restoring the land to its original state after the operation is done, and the plants that process cement dedicate considerable resources to limiting their emissions.

People have misconceptions as far as pollution goes, Luciano says. The cloud they're seeing is not dust. It’s evaporation. And we monitor it. We have probes inside of our stack that read the emissions, and we also have people trained to read it.

Plants like CalPortland’s are equipped with the tools and expertise to get what we need from the earth without impacting the local environment. A big part of that is what comes after—the process of reclamation.

Reclamation brings life back to the mine, explains Daniel Garcia, a project superintendent at Turner Mining Group. It’s 
the best process to turn a mine into something usable again—it could be land for homes, parks, or even ponds for fishing.

Daniel emphasizes two little-known facts—that we depend on mined materials for our daily lives, and that these materials can be extracted with minimal damage to the environment. As he says, people know it starts with a big hole, but they don’t really know where it ends.

Reclamation is not just good for the environment—it’s an economic necessity. After a mining operation is complete, landowners look to raise the value of their stripped land, aiming to develop or sell it. Working with reclamation crews, they make choices ranging from the kind of soil to the vegetation that will live on the surface. But the end goal is always to restore the land from a barren state to something that lives and breathes as part of the natural environment.

Workers in reclamation enable us to enjoy the wilderness without worrying about open pits or desolation. It takes an incredible amount of foresight. According to Daniel, almost every single mine that I've been to has a 100-year mine plan. You’re thinking about the impacts 100 years from now. If that’s not environmentally friendly, I don’t know what is.

The Essential Industry

We rely on mine workers across the country—those who push through early mornings and long nights in caves and quarries so we can enjoy our roads, electronics, and the basic pillars of our society.

This industry, often misunderstood by outside observers, is cleaner and more important than most people can ever imagine.

Our roads, our homes, our driveways, our sidewalks—there are people who get up early every morning to dig for that, 
Luciano says. Everything that we do, it's for the betterment of mankind.