Limestone from the sky

Limestone is a necessary material in most buildings, but expanding a limestone quarry is no picnic. And this one, at Le Pibeste in the French Pyrenees, goes straight up, towering 330 meters (1082ft) above your head.
Lourdes quarry

Not many buildings that we see around us have been built without limestone. The rock is being used both as a component in cement, and as pure construction material and for ornaments. In short, limestone is absolutely necessary for a modern society, but the machines in the quarries are surely put to the test.

When Patrick Zerbini, head of quarrying company SOCARL, decided to expand the quarry in Le Pibeste in France, he knew he was facing an extra tough challenge.  Most quarries go down into the ground. This one goes straight up, towering 330 meters (1082ft) above your head. SOCARL also boasts an extraordinary 159-metre-tall (522ft) ‘chimney’ and a 120-metre-long (394 ft) tunnel, all drilled into the rock face. The main crusher is located at the top of the chimney, allowing the crushed limestone to be dropped down to a storage area in the tunnel and then taken by conveyor belt to the secondary and tertiary processing units.

Patrick Zerbini would need, for instance, to find vehicles powerful and versatile enough to tackle gradients of up to 45 percent during construction work. And he would need to carve a 2km (1.3 mile) road into the side of the mountain, without peppering the dual carriageway below with rocks and boulders. What he did not foresee, though, was perhaps the biggest headache of them all. A headache caused by an owl.

“It’s been a tough project since we bought the quarry in 1999,” says Zerbini. But I never doubted that we could do it. We’ve got some great people here, and we found the perfect machines for the job. The Eagle Owl, though, was a bit of a surprise. It was the only thing that got the better of our technology! It’s very rare and a protected species. It held us up for two years, while ecological experts studied it.”

The quarry, located near the pilgrimage town of Lourdes in France, lies at the foot of the Pyrenees, the mountain range forming the border between France and Spain.

These mountains are famous for their rare flora and fauna, especially their birds of prey.

Zerbini, whose two sons David and Pierre also work for the family business, explains.

“When we bought the quarry, it only had 10 years of reserves left. The previous owner had been refused permission to expand on the left side because of the flora and fauna. And we couldn’t go right because the authorities wanted that area for road expansion.

“So the only way to go was up.” That meant building an access road to reach the upper levels while finding an environmental way of bringing the stone back down: a chimney!

They began building the road by using hand drills, then weak explosive charges, and finally excavators. The next step was finding articulated haulers that could handle the extreme terrain while carrying away the rock and rubble from the road construction.

“We carried out some tests at another quarry and found there was only one vehicle up to it. It took me about three minutes to decide. We bought two Volvo A25D dumpers. It was the only option. I’m not talking them up, I’m just saying things how they are.

Today the quarry, which also uses an L150E Volvo wheel loader, is ready to operate at full capacity, producing 750,000 tonnes of limestone annually. The expansion means the site now has reserves for the next 50 or 60 years at least – and can provide material for many more buildings.

And the Eagle Owl? Well, it’s still there. 

 “It’s a very rare bird, it’s protected and it happens to like quarries. We see it as our lodger.”

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