Earth Week Part 3: Sand Mine Setbacks from Rivers

After a year and a half of investigating sand mining best practices around the US and the world, I concluded that Texas falls short of other states and countries on several measures. The single biggest opportunity for improvement: greater setbacks from rivers.

River is migrating toward pit in background at the rate of 12 feet per year. When this picture was taken after Harvey, dike was only 38 feet wide.

Other states recommend from 100- to 1000-foot setbacks. Some prohibit building in floodways and flood plains. All but one sand mine on the San Jacinto lie at least partially in floodways. This leads to frequent dike breaches which, I believe, contribute to downstream sedimentation and flooding. Yet legislation that could increase setbacks and safety remains bottled up in committees.

Benefits of Setbacks

Greater setbacks would remove mines from the fiercest currents during floods. Leaving vegetation in place between the mine and the river would also help bind soil, reduce erosion, protect mines stockpiles, slow currents entering mines, help trap any sand leaving mines, and improve public safety.

Memorial Day Flood in 2015 ruptured the dikes on these sand mines on both sides of the West Fork.

Miners’ Objections to Setbacks

I queried several miners and the Texas Aggregate and Concrete Association (TACA) about why they felt compelled to mine so close to rivers. The answer (I’m paraphrasing now): because there’s less overburden, they have greater efficiencies that are important in a low margin business.

That makes sense until you realize that some of these mines are more than two miles wide. That’s wide enough so that parts didn’t even flood during Harvey. And I have to believe that:

  • …if sand on the perimeter was unprofitable, they wouldn’t mine it.
  • …if mining in the floodway were prohibited, no one would be at a competitive disadvantage.

Dubious Relationship Between Growth and Mining Near River

For generations, the mining industry has positioned itself as “the driver of growth.” And it has sought concessions from state legislators to perpetuate growth. Like all myths, there’s some truth to this one. But when you look closely, any argument for lax regulation rapidly disappears.

While over-regulation can certainly hurt an economy, sensible regulation can help it. If aircraft manufacturers tolerated crashes, people would not fly.

So why is leaving a floodway-wide buffer such a hardship? I’m still scratching my head. According to USA Today, three states have higher growth rates than Texas AND require minimum setbacks (Idaho, Washington and Arizona). So setbacks are not anti-business or a growth killer. Idaho is growing at 2.20%, Washington at 1.71% and Arizona at 1.56% according to USA Today. Texas is growing at 1.43%.

When you look at the opposite end of the spectrum, the two states LOSING the most population are West Virginia and Wyoming – both big mining states with lax regulations.

So clearly, lax regulation is not creating growth and tougher regulation is not stifling it. So why is it so hard to get mining regulation that protects citizens, property and the environment?

Status of Mining Legislation

Here is where Texas stands on proposed sand mining legislation.

No bill opposed by TACA has made it out of committee so far this year.

Two bills supported by TACA have reached the floors of the Senate and the House:

  • SB 2126 which could actually allow mining IN rivers, not just their floodplains.
  • HB 907 which doubles fines against unregistered miners (not TACA’s problem).

All the rest are still bottled up in committee tonight with only 34 more days remaining in the session:

  • HB509 which requires a hydrologic impact study, public notice, and public hearings before permitting
  • HB908 which strengthens fines for water code violations and increases inspection rates
  • HB909 which calls for the TCEQ to adopt and publish best management practices for mining
  • HB1671 which would enforce those best practices on the San Jacinto and require minimum setbacks
  • HB2871 which would require miners to post performance bonds, ensuring reclamation when they finish mining.

Seat Belt and Blowout Analogies

I am not against mining; I am FOR more responsible mining that protects citizens, property, the environment, and the image of Texas as a great place to live. Growth is far more complicated than the sand mining industry would have us believe.

Minimum setbacks will not destroy the state’s formula for growth. They’re a safety measure, like seat belts for Mother Earth against speeding, out-of-control floodwaters.

Arguing against them is reminiscent of the argument against putting seat belts and other safety features in cars 50 years ago. Remember Unsafe at Any Speed? At the time, some in industry claimed the extra cost would drive Detroit out of business. Those of us old enough to remember might say it was the beginning of Detroit’s rebirth.

Another more direct analogy: a hundred years ago, people drilled oils wells that routinely blew out. Erle P. Halliburton changed the industry with new cementing techniques that prevented blowouts and improved well control. In 1957, Oklahoma inducted Halliburton into its Hall of Fame. The world is a much safer place because of him.

Hurricane Harvey exposed the safety flaws in the assumptions underlying sand mining regulations. We have 34 days left in this legislative session. Let’s use them to enact some common sense legislation that improves the safety of mining and preserves the environment for our children.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/25/2019

604 Days since Hurricane Harvey