After Harvey, it became clear that the simplest and most effective way to avoid sedimentation due to sand mining, was to prevent any new sand mining in the floodway. State Representative Dan Huberty introduced three new bills to toughen legislation on sand mines yesterday. But these bills never mention words like river, setback, buffer zone, erosion, sediment, or floodway.
What the Bills Do
HB 907 – Doubles the penalties for not registering a sand mining operation. New penalties can range from $10,000 to $20,000 per year with the total not to exceed $50,000.
HB 908 – Provides for penalties up to $50,000 for water code violations by sand miners and every-other-year inspections by the TCEQ.
HB909 – Calls for the TCEQ to adopt and publish best management practices for sand mines (aggregate production operations) that comply with applicable environmental laws and regulations.
Good…As Far as They Go
…is actually an amendment to the portion of the water code that HB 571 established in 2011. HB 571 targeted unregistered and, therefore, unregulated sand mining operations. If you search back through historical satellite photos of the West Fork between I-45 and I-69 in Google Earth, you can see several such bandit mining operations. Miners would take a backhoe and a dump truck down to a point bar. Then they would start mining sand right out of the river banks. The scars can still be seen today in many places.
I haven’t seen many instances, though, of these kinds of operations in the satellite images since the passage of HB 571 in 2011. That’s good news. But it makes me wonder whether the emphasis on un-permitted operations is misplaced. Most problems come from permitted mines, not un-permitted. So this makes it appear as though we’re putting teeth into mining regulation without really solving the big problems, such as mining in the floodway, breached dikes that remain open for years, and abandoning mines without any reclamation.
…specifies that all mines will be inspected at least once every two years to ensure that they comply with “all applicable environmental laws and regulations.” The problem: nowhere does the law (or the TCEQ) specify what those are. So a canoeist, for instance, who spots something suspicious, like a backhoe intentionally letting sediment-laden water out of a mine, has no way to tell if the activity is legal or illegal.
One can spend days searching the TCEQ website looking for the regulations they are supposed to enforce.
Also, every-other-year inspections give grass 730 days to grow and cover up the evidence of breaches in sand mine dikes.
Imagine telling your kid to clean up his or her room; you’ll be back to inspect it in two years.
… is a good first step. It directs the TCEQ to establish a set of best practices for sand mining and to publish them. However, the bill does not stipulate the type of best practices to include. Nor does it stipulate any penalties for non-compliance.
It’s like the State telling Porsche owners that those 20 MPH speed limits in school zones are a “good idea.”
Bill McCabe, a member of the steering committee of the Lake Houston Area Grass Roots Flood Prevention Initiative, had this to say. “If they don’t list the BMP’s in the statute, nor authorize any penalties for violation of these BMP’s, what good does this do us? The TCEQ will merely adopt something similar to your BMP’s (the ones I proposed last year); TACA will agree; and everyone will go their merry way with no changes in sand-mining operations. If we later complain, TACA will assert that these are merely suggestions, and not intended to be law. And even if they are law, there are no penalties.
The Appearance of Meaningful
As these bills work their way through committees and the legislative process, residents will have opportunities to testify about their Harvey experiences, provide comments on the bills, and suggest amendments to strengthen them.
But at this point it looks like an uphill struggle. We’ll be lucky to see any truly meaningful legislation in 2019.
TACA Should Be Delighted
TACA, the Texas Aggregate and Concrete Association, will be delighted by these bills. If these become law in their present form, they will create the appearance of protecting people. That could undermine momentum toward regulation that reduces sedimentation.
As always, these are my opinions on matters of public policy protected by the first Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP statute of the great state of Texas.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/18/2019
508 Days since Hurricane Harvey