Gazing into the bowels of the Syar quarry southeast of the city of Napa, it’s hard to escape the sense of history that reveals itself in the exposed volcanic rock.
Primarily, it’s a geologic history — the dark, bluish-gray basaltic and the burnt-red tuffaceous rock provide a glimpse of how volcanic flows hardened into layers of rock over time.
But the site’s mishmash of heavy industrial equipment — drills, rock crushers, bulldozers and loaders — evokes memories of an earlier, grittier Napa when mining, steel manufacturing and shipbuilding were major forces behind the local economy.
Syar Industries is preparing to double the output of its Napa operations, from 1 million tons of aggregate to up to 2 million tons annually. John Perry, Syar vice president of engineering, said the increase should serve Syar’s needs for the next 35 years.
The expansion requires a new permit from Napa County. A draft environmental impact report that will analyze the potential impacts to aesthetics, air quality, groundwater, noise and traffic may be released this month.
In addition to the Napa quarry, Syar has operations in Vallejo, on the Russian River in Sonoma County and on Cache Creek in Yolo County, among other holding stations, Perry said.
The main products that originate from the Napa quarry are asphalt and concrete, but rock mined from the Syar site can be found in landscaping throughout the Napa Valley.
The highest quality rocks are the blue basalt and rhyolite, with the basalt being used to make concrete and asphalt, and the rhyolite being made into construction aggregates, drain rock and other industrial products.
Perry said that Syar, which tries to reuse as much asphalt and concrete as possible, operates probably the largest recycling facility in Napa County.
“It’s quite a mountain that you develop,” Perry said of the mounds of recycled concrete and asphalt. “It’s a green way to do things.”
Syar’s customer base includes Caltrans and the Napa County Public Works Department, which use the aggregate base in constructing roads. Local landscaping companies, commercial developers and property owners also carry off truckloads of Syar’s rock products, Perry said. Castello di Amorosa — a winery near Calistoga built as an ancient European castle — features rock from Syar.
Syar relies on customers within a 50-mile radius of its quarry sites; selling to businesses outside of that range can become cost-prohibitive.
“The further away you get, the easier it is for another quarry to come in,” Perry said.
Syar has about 50 employees at its Napa headquarters. The quarry operation brings the total to about 60 to 70 employees locally, Perry said.
Syar’s predecessor at the quarry site, Basalt Rock, was the largest in-county employer of Napa residents during World War II, when it operated a shipyard; the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo was the largest out-of-county employer of Napans, according to the city of Napa.
Perry said Basalt would bring barges up the Napa River, which borders the western end of its property, dropping off material and picking up loads of rock products.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers uses some of it to cover up pipes extending into the ocean, so if a freighter passes by with its anchor dragging, it won’t hook onto the pipe, he said.
Basalt first started mining in the original quarry site, which was 673 acres, in the early 1900s, and continued its operations until Syar purchased it in 1986.
Before the era when trucks were used as transports, Basalt developed a series of gondolas that would take rock product from the quarry and send it down to the Napa River, where it would be loaded onto barges and shipped.
Basalt later leased land adjacent to the quarry site from the state of California, which owns Skyline Wilderness Park. Syar purchased the leased land, as well as additional acreage, in the 1990s.
Perry said Syar is working with the Skyline Park Citizens’ Association to accurately establish the boundaries between the park and the quarry site; the lines the state drew can vary up to 100 feet in width.
Parts of the Skyline Trail run onto Syar’s property, requiring a redesign that will put the trail solely on park property. Syar’s planned expansion will extend to areas where the trail sits currently, and the citizens association is working with a trailmaster to develop the final redesign,
To get to the rock Syar prizes most requires precision blasting. The company drills holes 6 inches in diameter into the rock, some extending 50 feet. It relies on a contractor to mix the explosives, which are inserted into the holes no more than 10 to 15 feet in depth, Perry said.
Syar workers place the caps over the holes and then set off the explosions in a timed sequence — milliseconds apart. The caps contain the energy and force created by the explosions, which causes the hillsides to fall away, leaving the rocks exposed, he said.
The process usually takes several days to schedule. Perry said Syar does blasting in the late morning or early afternoon, when most people are awake and at work. The company is currently blasting once per week.
“Blasting is really a science,” Perry said. “It’s not like it’s the good ol’ boys going out there with their dynamite. The most economical crushing you can do is through that initial blasting.”
While the company’s goal is to sell 2 million tons of product annually, that requires taking out a lot more hillside as part of the excavation and blasting process, he said.
The only areas where people can hear the blasts are at Skyline Park and in a vineyard immediately south of the quarry, Perry said.
In the southeast part of the quarry, Syar blasts to get to the basaltic rock, which is surrounded by tuffaceous rock and a white rock.
“This was created from lava flows,” Perry said. “Different colors represent different volcanic flows and episodes.”
The company uses loaders to transport the rock down to its main crushing operation, which has its start with a conveyor belt located on a hillside.
The rock travels down a conveyor belt, which allows it to be crushed and then diverted onto a series of conveyor belts and crushers. These crushers determine the size and grade of the ultimate product, Perry said.
The Syar site sits on Highway 221, but few drivers would notice its existence except for the company’s sign. That’s because the site has visual buffers — ridges that block views of the blasting work.
In seeking the new permit, Syar is working to create more of these buffers, as well as to develop plans for reclaiming hillsides after it’s finished mining. That involves planting native plants.
Perry first came to Napa County as an employee for Kaiser Steel but has worked with Syar since 1987.
Even after all those years, Perry said he still finds new aspects to the job.
“It’s phenomenal what they’re able to do,” Perry said.
The original posting of this story was accompanied by a photo that was misidentified. The aerial photo, which has since been deleted, was of Syar's Lake Herman quarry in Vallejo.