| By John Howell Sr.
Lehman-Roberts’ Plant Number 7 – the hot mix asphalt plant site west of Batesville city limits on what is known as the old Farrish Gravel Company site – was selected late last year for the National Asphalt Pavement Association’s (NAPA) Diamond Achievement Award for Excellence.
The commendation recognizes hot-mix asphalt production facilities that operate in an exemplary manner, according to a NAPA news release.
"Earning the Diamond Achievement Commendation serves as a signal to neighbors that an HMA facility is a good neighbor," said NAPA Chairman Jim Roberts.
The commendation is earned through a self assessment process that evaluates appearance, operations, environmental practices, safety, permitting, compliance and community relations. The evaluation is verified by local community members and a nationally-known independent assessment firm, according to the NAPA news release.
However, a visit to Plant Number 7 reveals that the news release accolades accompanying the Diamond Achievement Commendation significantly understate what goes on at the facility.
"Most people don’t realize what we do," Lehman-Roberts’ Mississippi Manager Jamie Sullivan said.
"They see it, but where it comes from, a lot of people don’t even have a clue," said plant superintendent Robert Reed.
It is the hot-mix asphalt, the aggregate paving material manufactured at Plant Number 7.
Where most people encounter hot-mix asphalt is when they drive along one lane of an interstate highway while road repair crews resurface the closed lane. The steaming, hot, black mixture the crews are spreading is 250 to 300 degrees.
"It’s kind of like standing on top of a big grill," Reed said. "In thick-soled shoes," he added.
That hot, black mixture originated at Plant Number 7. They produced approximately 186,000 tons of it last year, Sullivan said.
That’s enough asphalt to pave 150 to 160 miles, depending on a road’s width and thickness, said Joe Welch, Lehman-Roberts Chief Estimator.
Almost 25 percent of the plant’s production was sold to Panola County, Welch said, saving the county "$150,000 in haul costs alone in 2006."
Lehman-Roberts’ Plant Number 7 employs 25 full-time workers. Another 100 to 125 people, "95 percent local to Panola and surrounding counties," Welch said, "are supported by this plant and this operation."
These include haulers and small paving contractors.
But the plant’s local economic impact is not what the Diamond Achievement Commendation was intended to recognize. It is intended to recognize the facility itself, a facility that is "not your father’s asphalt plant," to adopt another version of a worn slogan.
The Lehman-Roberts Company was turned down in its initial proposal to build the plant nearby on Highway 35 South where its sister company, Memphis Stone and Gravel, has been located. Concern about emissions and appearance prompted residents of the area to object to its location there. Company officials then decided to build on the old site.
Lehman-Roberts had bought the old Farrish Gravel Company’s asphalt plant in 1982. They produced asphalt with the old plant until late 2004 when they shut down for the season and began new construction.
Two years later and some $6 million later, the new Lehman-Roberts plant is state-of-the-art. The aggregate components of asphalt are fed into hoppers that mix the components in proper amounts. Sitting in an elevated hexagonal-sided office that he likens to the bridge of a towboat, Mike Smith controls the amounts of rock-gravel-sand aggregate, recycled asphalt paving (RAP), limestone and oil with a touch-screen. Another screen records weights of trucks which receive the plant’s product; another gives him an overview through strategically placed TV cameras.
Formerly, most asphalt was manufactured in "batch" plants – facilities which prepared just enough product at one time to meet anticipated demand. Two cylinders that tower over the new Lehman-Roberts plant allow them now to be more flexible. The towers keep the finished asphalt hot enough to store for limited periods, allowing Lehman-Roberts to offer customers a more flexible schedule.
"It’s really pretty much an environmentally-friendly operation," said Sullivan, an engineer.
Ninety percent of the oil used in the asphalt manufacture comes to them as recycled from "when you changed oil at a service station," Reed added. The process of using the recycled oil saves an estimated 350,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually, Sullivan said.
Fifteen percent of the aggregate mix that is turned into asphalt comes from the RAP – the top inch-and-a-half milled off the surface of a highway before the new asphalt goes down.
The process uses and produces no carcinogens. "It’s really pretty much a natural product," Sullivan said of the asphalt.
The manufacturing plant is stringently monitored both by employees and representatives of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality during its summer peak production cycle for emissions, runoff and other environmental considerations, Sullivan said.
Lehman-Roberts "wants the plant to fit in the community, to be unobtrusive and to be a good neighbor," Welch said.
They have been so successful with the goal to be unobtrusive that few people other than near neighbors are aware of the new facility that has arisen in the hills along Farrish Gravel Road.