Eye-watering dust and wall-rattling vibrations.
Full-time jobs and corporate support for an annual celebration of eastern European culture, which includes Polish sausages.
All have been part of life in Sugar Creek, where the mining of limestone and the manufacture of Portland cement has been one of the small Jackson County community’s principal industries.
Last month a new owner announced its intention to maintain this legacy, right down to financial support of the city’s annual Slavic Festival celebration of eastern European food, dance and culture.
Eagle Materials Inc. of Dallas announced it was acquiring the Sugar Creek operations of Lafarge North America Inc. That was big news to Stan Salva, Sugar Creek’s mayor, who described the fees and taxes paid by Lafarge to Sugar Creek as the community’s largest source of revenue.
Steven Rowley, Eagle Materials president and chief executive officer, recently visited Salva at City Hall and pledged a robust production schedule.
“That was one of the first things we were concerned about,” said Salva. “But I was assured by Eagle that nothing was going to change.”
Others who saw Lafarge as a poor corporate presence weren’t sure what to make of the news.
“I certainly hope that (Eagle) will be a better neighbor,” said Jim Thompson, a member of a residents group that recently opposed a Sugar Creek Lafarge subservice mining application.
“But people around here no longer complain about dust or blasting because they know nothing will happen.”
The purchase, which still must undergo regulatory review, figures to end an era in Sugar Creek, where Lafarge has operated since 1991 as part of the international Lafarge Corp. building materials conglomerate based in France.
That tenure has included innovation.
In 2000, Lafarge invested $250 million in a new “deep mine” complex in which miners extract high-grade limestone from a 5 million-square-foot cavern some 750 feet below the surface.
Limestone is a principal ingredient in the manufacture of Portland cement. From an adjacent cement plant, the company ships its product across the Midwest and as far north as the Dakotas. In doing so, Lafarge has continued the limestone legacy that began in Sugar Creek with the opening of the Missouri Portland Cement quarry and cement plant in 1905.
But the Lafarge era in Sugar Creek also has included controversy.
In 2008, a separate Lafarge division, Lafarge Aggregates, filed an application to operate an underground limestone mine beneath a former dairy farm near Sugar Creek’s eastern border. The site stood near hundreds of northeastern Independence and unincorporated Jackson County homes, as well as an elementary school and several churches.
Many nearby residents opposed the project. Their concerns about dust and blasting vibrations perhaps lowering their property values and quality of life dominated four often emotional Sugar Creek public hearings in 2008.
In 2010, a lawyer representing the residents filed three lawsuits against the project. But last year the residents dropped the litigation, saying they could no longer afford it.
Rowley insists that his company intends to operate in a sensitive manner.
“When we mine in close proximity to communities, we do it very carefully,” he said. “We certainly do our best to minimize any vibrations.”
Work began in the newly permitted area in November 2010.
Conditions since have varied, said Dee Wiss, a resident who lives near the operation. She has noticed some efforts to mitigate dust. Employees will wet down truckloads of rock after they have been loaded, she said, and also water down the “haul road” used to move crushed rock to the surface.
Two months ago, she said, two Lafarge representatives came to her home to listen to her concerns about dust and vibration levels.
“They were very polite,” said Wiss.
Still, blast vibrations continue to rattle her walls, she said, and the amount of dust rises or falls depending on the wind and the volume of rock being processed.
“On some days,” she said, “the only way you can get away from it is to get in your car and leave the neighborhood.”
Complaints generated by the underground operation are logged by the Sugar Creek police. In recent months, the number of complaints has lessened, said Police Chief Herb Soule. He also believes some area residents are confused about the source of blasts.
Some, he said, originate at a landfill in Sugar Creek.
“But the complaints have been not so frequent lately,” Soule said.
Eagle Materials has pledged to continue the same high-profile community role filled by Lafarge, which helped subsidize events such as the annual Sugar Creek Slavic Festival.
The company also hopes to maintain production levels, Salva added. The rise or fall of building products demand has been visible at the Lafarge deep mine. In 2009, miners experienced a “temporary layoff” that lasted just short of three months, said Steve Kidwell, Lafarge area manager for environmental and public affairs.
“We didn’t lose any jobs,” Kidwell said.
But that slowdown lessened the amount paid to Sugar Creek in utility franchise fees tied to electricity use, and sales tax generated by the amount of materials sold, Salva said.
Rowley believes the Sugar Creek facilities — as well as a Tulsa, Okla., cement plant that is also part of the transaction — will provide Eagle Materials the flexibility to more efficiently supply product to various markets. The company operates cement plants in Illinois and Texas, as well as cement terminals in Nebraska and Colorado.
“If we are a little short of cement in Denver, it is very easy for us to ramp up production to meet the needs in other markets,” Rowley said.
The Kansas City area operations of Lafarge North America, which include aggregate — construction materials such as gravel and crushed stone — and ready-mixed concrete facilities, employ around 240 people. No layoffs are expected.
“The new CEO and his team came in and made a real positive impression on both the salary and union workforce,” Kidwell said.
“They seemed to have a lot of respect for what we have accomplished.”