Alan Titchall visits Matamata to talk with industry veteran George Cunningham who has clocked up over six decades in the extraction industry.
QUARRY INDUSTRY veteran George Cunningham has prepared for my visit with a pile of documents festooned with sticky notes, and a child’s jigsaw puzzle.
He has been cleaning out his home office with its accumulation of documents that reach back to his start in the industry at Horokiwi Quarry in Wellington in 1952.
He rang me at Q&M’s Auckland office to discuss an article in the AQA section of the February magazine about turning old quarry sites into public amenities. Future rehabilitation of quarries is a subject George is very passionate about.
Another story in that issue also grabbed his attention – a historic story on the old Ngakuru quarry near Rotorua that supplied ‘pozzolan’ (silica) for the concrete that built the dams on the Waikato River. Lime & Marble operated the old quarry in conjunction with Wilkins & Davies Construction (W&D), which is now defunct.
George worked for W&D from 1960 to 1987, when he resigned and founded his own specialist quarry consultancy service called Porchester Agencies. His business ceased operation at the end of March 2016.
“I was reading the February issue of Q&M magazine when memory flooded back on my days in the early 1960s at Turangi, where I looked after the W&D alluvial gravel plants. We also built a new crushing plant in Taumarunui to supply railway ballast.”
George managed the company’s quarries division for some 17 years.
“Our Te Rangi-ita Quarry team also helped with the extraction of the raw pit material at Ngakuru, just south of Rotorua.
Pozzolan Products was having problems with increasing its output to process pozzalan product. At that time, W&D secured the contract to supply aggregate for the construction by MOW of the Aviemore Dam project on the Waitaki River. The processed pozzalan was transported to the South Island site by bulk tanker.
“Processing wet or damp silica is slow and expensive, so during the summer period, January and February, our team ripped the in-situ silica raw material –with a D6 bulldozer, from memory – and then proceeded to dry it by turning it over and over for a few days with a grader until it was ‘bone dry’.
“The silica was then uplifted and stored indoors in readiness for fine grinding, over later months.
“At that time, the late Max Whiley was the workshop manager for W&D. In that role, Max arranged for the purchase of the first four Kenworth trucks to be imported into New Zealand.
“Those units were initially used to transport concrete aggregates from the W&D gravel plant located at Aviemore to the dam site.
“Max and I became lifelong friends.
“I had just left the Horokiwi Quarry in Wellington. Max was building a new house in the Hutt. It had stone walls. I helped him on Saturday afternoons go to the quarry, break large stones with a hammer, put them on a trailer and take them to his home building site.
“After leaving W&D, Max formed the company known as ‘Titan Plant Services’, which was to be located adjacent to the W&D depot near Seaview, Lower Hutt.”
A ‘greenie’ at heart
George had marked page 44 in the February Q&M magazine featuring the Whangarei Gardens, which was created out of a disused quarry site.
“That article really grabbed me because I’m a greenie, believe it or not, after 64 years in the quarry industry.
“I’m adamant that completed site rehabilitation is one of the keys that helps us to secure access to future quarry resources.
“Back in 1991, John Sammons, (a past president of the AQA), went informally to the IRD and said ‘look, you can’t usually complete or even commence the rehabilitation of a quarry site until all of the rock/gravel resource extraction activity has been fully completed. Could we (the industry) in the meantime, put tax-free money aside for the purpose of funding future rehabilitation?’
“The informal reply from the IRD was ‘No’. Either spend on rehabilitation or pay tax on it! You can’t just put it in a ‘bucket and say it’s a future cost!’
“I’m not a taxation person, but I don’t think that’s changed. You either spend it or pay tax on it as profit.”
Despite this, there are many excellent examples of quarry rehabilitation in this country says George.
“Wright’s Water Gardens – [covered in April/May 2012 issue of Q&M – ‘When quarries bloom’] – how many people know that was an old basalt quarry? “Winstone’s Lunn Avenue quarry, where all those houses are now – they took over 80 million tonnes of material out of there.
“The Mt Eden Rose Gardens in Auckland – you wouldn’t know it was one of Auckland’s first quarries [covered in December 2015 Q&M].
“The Winstone Scoria quarry at Three Kings. The school grounds at Auckland Grammar and Mt Smart Stadium. And the list goes on!
“In 1967 I met a retired NZR engineer, Hec Beasley. He was at that time the consultant engineer for Sir Henry Kelliher. Sir Henry, who established Dominion Breweries, owned and lived on Puketutu Island.
“When W&D bought the Puketutu Island Quarry, I took over as manager of the site. Apart from day-to-day quarry operations, I was immediately confronted with two additional major tasks: renegotiating with Sir Henry over major changes in the terms of the then existing Quarry Access and Royalty Agreement; and preparing for Hec Beasley’s approval, a long-term Rock Extraction Plan and a Progressive Site Rehabilitation Plan, which included a two metre by two metre scale model.
“It was during my early discussions with Hec that I learned that during his time with the NZR, one of his tasks was to plan for and oversee the operations of the quarry at Mt Smart, which was at that time operated by the NZR for the purpose of producing railway ballast.
“Hec said he had always had a close involvement in athletics and as an outcome of that, he set out on a long-term plan to undertake the rock extraction at the quarry in a manner that would ultimately result in a land profile that would be suitable for establishing a stadium as the end use of the land.
“Over the years the Mt Smart Quarry had a succession of private quarry operators. In my opinion, it was the dedicated efforts of the final operator, WA Stevenson that made Hec’s dream come true!
“And I also think these projects fly the flag that the industry is not exploitive.”
George says that during his 26-year term as a quarry consultant he has been deeply involved in negotiating and completing around 20 quarry access lease/royalty agreements between landowners (small companies, farmers, and Maori trusts) and quarry operators. An essential clause in each, he says, involves future rehabilitation as protection for the landowner.
“They are not standard of course, as each contract is tailormade for the site and every site is different.
“It gives certainty to both parties. The landowner knows what he is going to get returned at the end of the quarry’s life, while the quarry operator knows they are not going to get kicked out because someone else offers 10 cents more for a tonne.
“You’re got to have forward planning that says when the quarrying stops, and what is going to be given back as an asset.
“The landowner has to weigh the money they get from leasing the land against the value of the returned land. They don’t want to be left with a financial liability.”
The lost ark of quarry locations
Amongst the wealth of industry publications George has collected over his career is a set of annuals tabling quarry locations in this country and their annual outputs.
The first one dated 1972, is called Annual Returns of Production from Quarries and the last – the New Zealand Annual Mining Review 1993. In 1992, with the implementation of the provisions of the RMA in force, the government decided it was a waste of time having the extraction industry compile these reports, and it lost sight of the industry. The Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 repealed The Quarries Act 1944 and the filing requirement, along with other practices that provided the government with vital extraction industry information.
“I could tell you where every quarry was in this country through to 1993, although these publications did get a bit skinny by that year and the information became a lot less detailed.
“I think there was a certain pressure brought on the government at the time to dispense with detail as it was confidential.
“And I can tell you with reasonable certainty that the returns were not kosher and were below actual production figures.”
Lack of information about the number of ‘small quarries’ in this country is now a problem for the likes of WorkSafe, which is tasked with implementing a new health and safety regime. George believes he knows where many of them are.
“Some of them have only had one or two people working at them, but they are technically a ‘quarry’.
“I’ve developed my own list over the years and I might not have all of them, but it will have most.”
The last job
George wound up his consultancy on March 31, 2016.
“One of the last jobs I did was providing evidence for the District Plan Review for Christchurch in 2015.
“I suggested that they [local quarries] didn’t dig too much deeper because the aquifer level in those areas is close and it’s too much of a risk to dig down, say, another three metres.
“If you have a 10-hectare hole and you excavate to below the water table level it makes it harder to refill it, and you will just end up with more and more lakes around Christchurch in the future.
“I mean – how can you rehabilitate a quarry if it is full of water? At least if it’s dry ground you can cover it with a layer of clay or sub-soil and turn it into an industrial park or add a layer of soil on top of the fill to provide, for example, a new housing estate.”
The A and B Grade examination issue
“I’ve stayed away from the new exams issue because I was initially involved in the proposed new manager’s examinations, and sat down for days defining what A-grade and B-grade managers needed to know.
“WorkSafe actually paid me for this work, then just threw it out and said, ‘we’re not going that way’. I walked away.
“That’s why I didn’t go to the AQA/IOQ conference last year. Because it irks me to think they’re trying to make us ‘swallow a pill’ to treat a situation that is not always necessary at some sites.
“Last year’s conference in Blenheim should have been my 48th. I had only missed one before, the 13th, because I got stuck in Indonesia and I couldn’t get a plane out.
“I also missed half of one in 1991 when I was consulting for McConnell Dowell and got a phone call from Mr McConnell who said, ‘George you’re flying out to Guam tomorrow, we’ve got a problem with a quarry up there’.
“I chose not to attend last year because I didn’t think it would do me any good to sit there and be lectured. I might have been wrong, I don’t know?
“At some point you have to leave them to get on with what they think is right.
“I don’t want to take on WorkSafe, but I go into quarries now and I think I wouldn’t want to be doing the job this guy has because he has got no authority, just responsibility – just a pipe-liner!
“I attained my A-grade certificate in 1958, but I’m not now deemed qualified to run a quarry because I haven’t done the three or four assignments WorkSafe now requires you to complete.
“I fear that the industry will run out of talented people, as some of the most valued employees in quarries haven’t gone to a university – they simply have the muscles and workplace skills to do a bloody good job.
“Running a crushing plant is a bit like piano tuning.
“You don’t make the piano, you don’t write the music, you don’t even play it, but you’re the piano tuner.
“And you need to make sure that the outcome is as perfect as possible! And that’s the skill a good quarry manager has got to have, and those required skills change from site to site.”
Regional long-term plans for quarry resources
“During the period 1988 to 2003 I served as industry advocate for the AQA. Over that period I made, on many occasions, harsh comment to the staff of several central and local government agencies about their lack of any positive support planning for the quarry industry, which would enable it to meet future community needs for quarry products.
“In fact, since the early 1970s I have pleaded with the local authorities to address the issue of providing for future aggregate resources.
“In 1969 there were 13 shingle plants on the Hutt River and there were eight or maybe nine quarries operating in the Wellington/Hutt Valley area.
“All that formal river extraction ceased long ago, and all but four quarries have closed. There are no known plans to replace them, yet the Wellington Hutt Valley area is now heavily populated.
“Communities want ‘infrastructure’ so where are the materials coming from? “There is nothing under law that says local authorities have to address this situation. Yes, they talked about it in the past, but once the RMA came along, talking stopped.
“Where is Auckland’s future rock supply going to come from – unless you truck it 50 or 80 kilometres? And every time Auckland expands out east they build over potentially good rock reserves.
“We also have to quarry a lot more rock, these days, to get enough of the ‘good stuff’.
“For every tonne of ‘good rock’ that goes out of a greywacke quarry, up to two and a half tonnes of over material is overburden, because no one uses the lower grade material anymore.
“So the yield of good rock is now less than it was 30 years ago, which means bigger quarry footprints, bigger disposal areas and more costs as a result.
“Experience has shown me that every community requires access to good supplies of fresh air, water and arable soil. It is also my belief that community access to stone sits fourth on the list. And quarries are a local community’s ‘stone shop’.
The AQA’s anniversary
The AQA’s 50th anniversary is coming up in three years’ time, but the Association is mistakenly aiming to celebrate it in 2024, says George.
“In June 1969 I attended a meeting in Hamilton put together by ready-mix concrete producers, who were worried about having access to quality aggregates for anyone making concrete those days.
“The outcome of that meeting was to form an association representing aggregate producers. It was formed in 1970 under the name Aggregates Association and held its first annual general meeting in Wellington on October 20, 1971.
“It was mainly made up of alluvial aggregate producers. Noel Geddy, from Winstone’s Quarries, was on the founding committee. I think he pulled out in 1973 and I replaced him on the committee.
“We changed the name to the Aggregate and Quarry Association of New Zealand (AQA) about 1984.
“Through the 1970s we had branches in Auckland, Waikato, Wellington, and one in the South Island.
“The AQA later did away with the branch structure – sadly, I think.”
George was also a founding member the Institute of Quarrying where he first met Bruce Webster.
“He and I were good mates after attending the first meeting of the IOQ in Auckland.”
The jigsaw puzzle
George is almost through his list of subjects and supporting documents when he asks me to stand up and do a job for him.
I have to put together a child’s jigsaw puzzle and at the end it is evident that there are two pieces missing.
“Obviously not the full picture,” says George handing me the two pieces to fit, then turning over the puzzle and revealing training tasks written on the back of each piece.
“All my life I’ve been involved in building teams and many of those involved couldn’t adequately read or write, but they turned out to be brilliant employees.
“You have to find a way to teach them. If one can’t get the full picture, like this jigsaw, something is missing.
“And I feel sorry for guys who want to become A- or B-grade managers today, as they will only be responsibility takers, not managers!”
Knowing my past training and interest in the hospitality industry George cleverly uses another analogy.
“To put it another way, if you saw three guys walking down the street in white jackets and chef hats, would you call them chefs?
“They could be a bread maker, a pie maker, a sous chef, or a short order cook. They all look the same to the public, but their skills and requirements are totally different.
“It’s like that with quarrying, tunnelling and mining. To the outsider these industries might look the same, but they’re not.
“And that’s where I think WorkSafe has gone totally wrong.
“I think they’re trying to teach a guy that’s running a little quarry here to be as good as a guy who has to have responsibilities in a tunnelling operation.
“They are using a sledge hammer on our industry and, in the end, people won’t want to join an industry more onerous on responsibility than skills.
“Finally, to do well, I believe one must have a strong philosophical connection with the industry one works in, demonstrate the ability to empathise with others, at every level, and show prudence in every decision that is required to be made.
“My mother used to say, ‘when you’re green you grow; when you’re ripe you rot’.
“And I think I’m still green; I’ve still got things to learn.”