PIT PLANS: What will be made of some of Vegas' largest empty pits?

PIT PLANS: What will be made of some of Vegas' largest empty pits?

Las Vegas is for the most part flat, with dozens of skyscrapers visible in the resort corridor and a few high-rise casinos on the outskirts.

What can't be easily seen are the massive feats of engineering below ground level.

200 feet or more covering hundreds of acres, right in the middle of Greater Las Vegas. These aren't just abandoned relics from Nevada's mining past, but places where you'll find plenty of activity today.

"We're ripping it and pushing it up and loading it into a crusher, and it's going up top to our crushing facility," says Wells Cargo Vice President Trent Scarlett.

"And it'll separate into the different types of aggregates we need to make asphalt."

Scarlett says this type of aggregate can be found in roads throughout Southern Nevada.

"Anywhere where you see black pavement," he says.

Project Neon, for example, means work for heavy equipment in the pit at Buffalo and Spring Mountain.

"That's one of the bigger dozers you'll see in town," says Scarlett, gesturing toward a machine guiding piles of dirt and rocks toward a conveyor belt. "That one pushes the material up. It rips it. It's got a ripper in the back. Then of course we feed into one of our crushers, and it belts it up to the rest of our plant."

This is the type of operation you're more likely to find in the middle of the desert, miles from any dense urban population. In fact, that's how things looked when this site was first chosen in 1954.

"If you crossed this side of Rainbow, you were concerned about if you had water and food," laughs Scarlett. "So yeah, very remote up here."

64 years ago when the population was around 30,000, it seemed unimaginable residential housing would come this far.

Aerial photography over several decades shows the startling growth. Dense neighborhoods are approaching the pits by the early 80S and have overrun them by the 90s.

Today, these gravel mines are miles within the perimeter of a valley populated by around 2 million people.

The Wells Cargo property on Spring Mountain between Tenaya and Buffalo is actually two separate pits. The mine on the north side of the road is between 180 and 200 feet and will go even deeper.

The pit to the south, however has been partially filled, with some of the ground level portions used for an asphalt manufacturing plant. Sky 3 video of the area from 1996 compared with today shows how much of the south pit has been reclaimed.

"The materials we're allowed to put in are earth materials," explains Scarlett. "Rock, concrete, concrete tiles. It's a controlled fill. We can't take any vegetation, any garbage, anything like that."

Some of the fill comes from classic Las Vegas casinos, starting with the implosion of the Dunes in 1993.

"The Landmark's come in here, the Sands has come in here," enumerates Scarlett. "Just about any hotel that's been imploded."

Two miles away on the east side of Durango just north of Tenaya, a pit which looks similar at a glance but is in a later place in its lifespan and operated by a different company.

"The whole pit was about 200 acres," says Las Vegas Paving's Dan Peressini from a spot overlooking several work vehicles far below. "And then they claimed about two thirds of it, and made it into the Buffalo Ranch subdivision. What we're standing on is the remaining pit, that's about 50 acres. And it has the largest volume of airspace left. And it needs to be filled up."

The pit originally spanned an entire mile from Buffalo to Durango on the south side of Peace Way when WMK Transit Mix received a permit in the mid-1960s. After a series of sales and acquisitions, the mine was operated by Rinker Construction, and by the turn of the century, it was no longer a good option for obtaining large amounts of aggregates. That's when it was sold to home developer D.R. Horton.

"Everything where [D.R. Horton development] Buffalo Ranch is now had been mined out, had been reclaimed," explains Peressini. "And the concrete plant and the crushing plant where the offices had been sitting. And then there was some ponds, some silt ponds from the aggregate operation. And that had to be reclaimed."

More recently, Las Vegas Paving acquired the remnants of the former mine.

"When the market crashed and there was a slowdown, the pit sat dormant for about 10-11 years,” recounts Peressini. "And then we bought the pit and we just started back up on the reclamation operation in January. And we'll take it through to the end to fill the whole pit back in."

The acquisition by Las Vegas Paving happened to coincide with a sudden, large influx of fill material.

"This is our field of dreams," said Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis at a groundbreaking on November 13, 2017, for the stadium that will become their new home in Las Vegas.

For the next few months, a steady stream of trucks carried excavated material from the new stadium site to the open pit at Durango and Peace.

"Is that enough material to fill the pit? Probably not," muses Peressini. "I mean, there's a lot of material that needs to go in here over the next five to ten years."

Some of what was first deposited may come out again to find different uses.

"From the Raiders Stadium there are some large rock pieces that were blasted over there," says Peressini pointing to a pile of boulders around eight feet in diameter. "Some of those may not stay in here because they're too large for engineered fill lifts."

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The term "Engineered Fill" means sticking to strict guidelines for how the level of the pit is raised.

"We're placing everything and we're compacting all of the material under the inspection of an engineer who writes a report to the county. The county signs off on that and we have to bring it all underneath the certified fill process."

While projects with the fill volume of Raiders Stadium are few and far between, the Las Vegas Paving pit in Spring Valley is almost constantly getting incrementally shallower.

"So every day there's a little bit of a trickle effect," explains Peressini. "Everybody's digging pools, basements. roadways, commercial pads. There's always a little bit of excess material typically coming off that."

Back at the Wells Cargo facilities on Spring Mountain, even as the south pit is slowly reclaimed, the north pit is getting ever deeper, though not always at a constant rate.

"It's based on demand," says Scarlett. "Based on the valley and what the demand is for the work we do."

Wells Cargo plans to keep active mining operations at the Spring Mountain location for the foreseeable future.

In fact, the company has applied for an expansion of asphalt manufacturing operations in the south lot, which has been partially reclaimed.

An air quality permit has been approved by Clark County, but a construction permit has not been granted. Wells Cargo is still evaluating a course of action.

Either way, the south lot will get shallower even as the north lot goes deeper. Will it ever be filled and developed over the top? Almost certainly yes, but that could be decades down the road.

"It all depends on the demand for what we do," reiterates Scarlett. "And we don't have a projection for that at this time."

The Las Vegas Paving facility on Peace Way is definitely on a faster track toward full reclamation. “Faster” is a relative term and still could mean five to ten years or more, at which point they will make a decision on how to finally transition the property into residential housing.

"The ownership of the company has developed other properties to completion or has sold it off," notes Peressini. "I would generally assume that we're going to bring it up to pad grade and evaluate the market at that time."

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