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Dark satanic mills? You couldn't be more wrong

Quarrying

Bulls Lodge Quarry is something of a novelty - a big, new, sand and gravel pit in the South-East. But that is not all; the extensive environmental measures taken by operator Pioneer Aggregates may see the site become the model for all future gravel workings. Adrian Greeman reports

THE OLD-style gravel pit has a bad reputation: an eyesore in the landscape, dusty, dirty and noisy, with the rumble of big trucks jamming pleasant country lanes.

But it is a different story at Bulls Lodge Quarry in Essex, even though it is one of the largest sand and gravel works in Britain. This quarry is so quiet that, when it opened its gates to the public during Minerals 98 last June, many of the 700 visitors from nearby Boreham and Chelmsford confessed that they had not realised there was a quarry there at all.

These comments were music to the ears of Dave Parrack, area general manager for operator Pioneer Aggregates UK. The firm, part of the Australian Pioneer concrete combine, has spent more than £5 million creating a type of quarry that is worked using modern environmentally-sensitive methods.

Many local people will not have known the quarry was there because it has kept such a low profile. Screening, washing and loading plant is limited to a maximum height of 22 m and sits in a specially excavated hollow. And with embankments surrounding the entire 330 ha site, activity is well hidden.

Much of this fulfils planning conditions laid down in 1990. A Section 52 planning agreement between Pioneer, Chelmsford Borough Council, Essex County Council and the Ford Motor Company (which still owns part of the site) stipulated that the site would be restored and landscaped as work progressed, eventually leaving a mixture of farmland and amenity land with a large lake in the middle. '...And we could certainly not use it for a giant landfill afterwards,' says Mr Parrack.

The site, a former World War II bomber airfield used most recently by Ford for testing trucks and rally cars, incorporates two farms, one of which, Bulls Lodge Farm, Pioneer has bought into. The area is picturesque, as well as productive.

For Pioneer, the environmental constraints are well worth the cost. Bulls Lodge is one of the richest gravel deposits in the UK, running to some 32 million tonnes of useable glacial gravel and sand, compared with the average of one to two million tonnes. It is of a high grade, too, with sometimes more than 50 per cent of stone content, and just right for the aggregates market.

'Most gravels have up to 70 per cent of sand, and the surplus goes to low-grade fill,' says Derek Hughes, the quarry's production manager. 'The gravel also has a very low silt content, just five per cent, which reduces the amount of washing needed.'

Pioneer uses the quarry's production primarily to feed its own ready mixed plants, but it also sells to the local building market, up to a radius of 40 km. Gravel costs too much to transport much further.

The gravel lies in a deep, compact band up to 14 m thick, quite different from most quarries which have seams only 1 m to 2 m deep.

'In a typical river deposit the area you have to work over to pull out the gravel is much larger than here,' says Mr Hughes.

Mr Parrack adds: 'You can afford a large investment when you have a big deposit like this.'

Capital invested here will have a good return, because the quarry should last at least 30 years. But a large proportion of the investment has been spent on addressing environmental concerns. 'This is probably well ahead of the market in terms of the environmental measures we've taken,' Mr Parrack says.

Development of the site began nearly 10 years ago, but the first six were spent preparing the quarry for full-scale production. This entailed processing a million tonnes of material with a mobile Powerscreen plant to shape the site, creating the hollow where the washing and screening now takes place and digging the 1 million litre-plus capacity settling ponds which allow water to be stored and recycled.

Environmental measures began at the outset. Tree planting has been a continuous operation, starting with an avenue of 3 m- high chestnut trees along the newly widened access. Planting has continued on restored and embanked areas. Some 30,000 trees have been planted so far; the total will top 100,000.

Similarly, Pioneer began working with the Boreham village community well before development work began on the quarry site. The firm rebuilt the village hall and carried out landscaping to shield the village and enhance the surroundings: the daffodils, for example, were planted by Pioneer.

At first the village had been opposed to the quarry but residents have warmed to it. In fact, the village is hardly affected by the quarry's activities, as the comments made by visitors last June testify.

'They are over the other side of the A12, which is virtually a motorway,' says Mr Hughes, 'and there is also the main rail line to London in between us. Bulls Lodge Farm gave access to the quarry, allowing trucks on to the road without passing any homes.'

Pioneer extracts the gravel in a strip 300 m wide, working along 1,000 m-long segments that form a giant spiral. This will eventually work round to the centre of the old airfield, where a 125 ha lake will be created.

Behind the worked face the strip is constantly being reinstated using the overburden - careful logistics ensure that no earth is moved more than once.

So when Mr Hughes points to the area behind the working face, where you do not see a scar of denuded land, you are looking not at Bulls Lodge Quarry at all, but at Bulls Lodge Farm - already green with this year's young crops.