With a deafening thunder a continuous stream of sand and pebbles rages over the conveyor belts in Born in Limburg. Bulk carriers moor on both sides of the tens-meter high installation on the water, which are simultaneously loaded with gravel and sand. At a large machine barrel, Michiel Dankers gestures enthusiastically as if he is hitting two imaginary cymbals together. “Look (…) crushing plant!” can just be heard by the roar of the machine, from which indeed the larger pebbles roll off the belt like small gravel.
Dankers is director of sand and gravel producer NV Niba, one of the parties in the consortium that operates the Limburg extraction project Grensmaas. More than a million tons of sand and gravel will be extracted this year from the 1,100 hectare area, where the Meuse is being widened. The pebbles are scooped out of the bed of the Meuse by excavators and sorted in the installations, cleaned and then broken up into processable gravel. Every week, a hundred full inland vessels sail down the Maas to the processors, who mainly make concrete from it.
The consortium of gravel producers has a permit to mine raw materials in Central and South Limburg until 2025, but after that it will all come to an end and Grensmaas will become a nature reserve. NV Niba from Nijmegen is therefore, like many peers, already looking for new projects, but runs up against an administrative wall when granting permits, says Dankers in the tranquility of a green construction site, a few minutes from the extraction project. „Municipalities are now experiencing the familiar not in my back yard-effect on; aldermen indicate that they only want to start a project if the province really has to. In turn, the provincial government says it will only issue a permit if the municipality supports the plan. And that is why we are now stuck, while we want to keep our work and our people going and our products are badly needed.” Dankers points to the pine walls of the construction shed. “You are not going to build a million homes from this in 2030.”
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Sector raises alarm
Primary building materials such as industrial sand, gravel, clay and marl occur in various places in the Dutch soil. As a rule, the further upstream, the coarser the material. Gravel is often extracted in the basins of the Meuse, in the catchment area in South and Central Limburg. Coarse sand occurs further downstream in the Rhine and Meuse. The most important provinces where they won are Limburg, Gelderland, North Brabant and Overijssel.
Cascade, the industry association that represents eighteen major gravel and sand producers, raised the alarm with these four provinces in a letter last week. The sector blames the government, among other things, for a ‘lack of urgency’ when granting permits for new extraction projects or expansions of existing operations.
Given the ambitions for the construction of infrastructure and housing, this is a major problem
Leonie van der Voort chairman Cascade
Because a number of large projects will be completed in the next five years, the supply of primary raw materials threatens to come to a standstill, says Cascade chairperson Leonie van der Voort. “Given the ambitions we have in the Netherlands for the construction of infrastructure and housing, a major problem arises here. The sand and gravel that we then need must be imported from Germany and Belgium – with all the costs and consequences for our footprint of it.”
A study commissioned by the trade association shows that gravel can no longer be extracted in the Netherlands from 2025 if no new projects are designated. According to Cascade, the problems also lie with the extraction of gravel and industrial sand, which are needed for the production of asphalt and concrete, among other things. Industrial sand extraction capacity would decrease by 30 percent every five years from 2025, unless new projects are added.
Majeur erreur, no rows configured for photogrid.
Until 2000, the allocation of gravel and sand extraction projects was a matter for the national government, which designated extraction sites and put contractors to work. This policy of ‘targets’ meant that the land companies mainly focused on their targets and the yield of raw materials – with the result that gaping extraction wells remained in the landscape and there was little participation from local residents.
Nowadays, the issuance of permits is the responsibility of the provinces. The sand and gravel sector was given more responsibility: with an application, it must, in consultation with municipalities, come up with a plan for a new gravel extraction project, which must also serve a social purpose. For example, in the Limburg Border Meuse project, a nature reserve is being developed and the river is being widened. The project contributed to the fact that the floods caused relatively little damage on the Dutch side of the border this summer.
Decentralization creates problems when finding new projects
Co Verdaas professor of area development
Co Verdaas, professor of area development at TU Delft, sees it as positive that the gravel sector has more responsibility thanks to decentralization, but also sees the downside: “Decentralization causes problems when finding new projects. There is now no longer ‘ownership’ in matching the supply and demand of raw materials such as sand and gravel, while we still need primary raw materials for the time being.”
The issue of new sand and gravel excavations also touches on the debate on ‘circular’ construction, in which the construction sector and politicians are looking for ways to make construction climate neutral. For example, the production of cement, which is needed for concrete, is a major emitter of CO2 (worldwide 6 to 7 percent).
With the Environment Act, which is to come into effect from July next year, the government is setting goals to become less dependent on polluting building materials such as concrete – so that less sand and gravel has to be extracted. Construction companies are looking for ways to build with renewable raw materials such as wood. More and more project developers are coming up with initiatives for wooden houses. So became agreed per covenant that 1 in 25 new-build houses in Amsterdam will be made of wood from 2025, and construction company BAM announced last week that it was opening a factory that can produce up to a thousand wooden houses annually.
Raw materials such as concrete and steel are also increasingly being recycled – secondary raw materials in construction jargon. When the new Environment and Planning Act is introduced, provinces are bound to reduce the use of primary building materials as much as possible – and to focus on reuse. According to Professor Verdaas, it would not be a bad idea to manage the supply and demand of primary raw materials more centrally. “On the one hand, there must be a transition to a circular construction system, but the lead time for new winning projects often takes years,” says Verdaas. “It would make a difference if the central government made an inventory with the provinces, and looked at how many building materials are needed in the longer term until we are fully circular.”
Cascade chairman Van der Voort agrees: “It takes years to develop new projects, and it is an illusion that we can only manage with recycled concrete. After all, we build more than we tear down, and the population is only growing further.”
Majeur erreur, no rows configured for photogrid.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 25, 2021
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