GMA Garnet USA, a Texas-based division of Australia-based abrasives maker GMA Garnet Group, officially opened on Tuesday a 230,000-square-foot plant in Fairless Hills, Bucks County, in the Keystone Industrial Port Complex.

With all that space, GMA plans only modest hiring: The company has already brought 26 employees on staff at the site and expects to peak at up to 40, said spokeswoman Stephanie Cheong. The plant is five times larger than the initial plant GMA built nearby in 2008, and will handle demand from across the United States.

Garnet sand, which will be processed and packaged at the new GMA Garnet USA plant in Fairless HIlls, Bucks County.
GMA Garnet USA
Garnet sand, which will be processed and packaged at the new GMA Garnet USA plant in Fairless HIlls, Bucks County.

The company will truck crushed rock garnets from Montana and ship garnet sands from South Africa to Fairless Hills, plus some recycled materials, to process and package. GMA will ship out 250,000 tons a year of garnet sands — in 55-pound bags and one- and two-ton packages — by the truckload down local and interstate highways and by barge down the Delaware River.

Garnet sand is in demand by oil and gas drillers and miners, who use it in waterjet-cutting machines and metal polishing. The new plant will package abrasives for U.S. and export use. Chief executive Stephen Gobby and president Rod Liebeck joined state officials and Franklin Institute astronomer Derrick Pitts for the opening.

The larger size of the plant makes it economical for GMA to concentrate its processing in Fairless Hills, instead of importing finished sand from abroad, said Peta Thompson, the company's executive general manager of global marketing. Restrictions on garnet mining in India also gave the company an incentive to expand the plant here, Thompson said.

Dubbed by its operators "Pennsylvania's newest industrial plant" —  albeit in "repurposed" space — the GMA works recalls two of the Philadelphia area's oldest industries. Keystone Industrial Port Complex is located at the 20th-century site of U.S. Steel's Fairless Works, the most extensive plant constructed by the area's 200-plus-year-old iron and steel industry, and formerly one of the largest heavy-industry employers in the region.

Mining for garnet, a red semiprecious stone, is one of the Philadelphia area's oldest industries, with 19th-century mining pits dotting rocky outcrops throughout the region — as still recalled in the name of Delaware County's Garnet Valley School District.

GMA is owned by a group of investors including leaders of Perth, Australia-based Jebsen & Jessen, a conglomerate founded by a pair of Denmark-based families in the 1890s that owns industrial facilities across Southeast Asia and Australia.