Looking back at the 2019 Texas Legislature, we have cause for both celebration and soul searching. The good news: A multi-billion-dollar flood-mitigation bill that will do a lot of good for a lot of people. The bad news: death in various committees of any serious legislation to reign in the out-of-control abuses of sand miners. They openly flaunt environmental laws and resist every attempt at reasonable regulation while pretending to be the good guys who fuel growth.
TACA even managed to kill a bill that would have defined best practices for sand mining (HB 909), without even creating any penalties for violation. You can read the entire rundown on the Legislation page of this site. Below is a brief summary of the bills I followed closely.
Flood Mitigation Scorecard
HB 13 would have created a flood infrastructure fund of $3.26 billion taken from the Economic Stabilization (Rainy Day) fund for flood planning, mitigation, and infrastructure projects. This bill had many of the same objectives as SB 7, but also contained some differences. SB 7 survived. HB13 didn’t.
SB 7 created a dedicated Texas Infrastructure Fund for flood control planning and the funding of flood planning, mitigation, and infrastructure projects. It Passed both houses and is on the Governor’s desk, awaiting his signature. You can read more detail about SB7 and how it will enable and accelerate flood mitigation in this post.
SB500 is an omnibus appropriations bill that includes funding for SB7. It also dedicates $30 million for dredging of the West Fork Mouth Bar in Lake Houston. It passed both Houses and is also on the Governor’s desk, awaiting his signature.
HB 911 would have created a Lake Houston Watershed Commission. Its purpose: to provide the public with streamlined communication and cooperation in flood control planning. It passed the House, but died in the Senate Water and Rural Affairs committee.
Sand Mining Scorecard
People all over the state rose up against the aggregate industry during this legislature, but legislation the industry opposed made it out of committee. Suddenly, TACA’s reason for making large donations to every committee chair in both the House and Senate became clear. There was one small win.
A Small Win
HB 907 Doubled 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. It passed both Houses and went to the Governor on 5/29. TACA backed this bill because the openly illegal sand mining is bad for their business. It creates low-priced competition.
Below is a short list of other sand-mining bills I followed:
HB509 would have allowed the Texas Railroad Commission to regulate APOs with TCEQ. It would have required a hydrologic impact study especially for large clusters of mines in a small area. It also would have required public notice, public hearings, and provided fines up to $10,000 and 1-year in jail for false statements made on permits. It died in committee.
HB 908 would have provided penalties up to $50,000 for water code violations and every-other-year inspections. Died in Committee. No testimony even heard.
HB 909 would have directed the TCEQ to adopt and publish best management practices for sand mines (aggregate production operations). Testimony was taken on 5/1, but no further action was taken. The bill died in committee.
HB 1671 would have extended water quality protections to the West Fork of the San Jacinto currently enjoyed by the John Graves District on the Brazos as part of a pilot program. It would have attached penalties for non-compliance with best practices defined under HB909. It died in the House Natural Resources Committee.
HB 2871 would required sand mines and other aggregate production operations to acquire a reclamation permit and to file a performance bond ensuring reclamation. Significantly, they would have had to do both of these things before they could have acquired a production permit. It also attached civil and criminal penalties for non-compliance. This bill died in the Energy Resources committee.
SB2123. Companion bill identical to HB907. Died in committee.
SB2124. Companion bill, identical to HB909. Died in committee.
SB2125. Companion bill, identical to HB908. Died in committee.
Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?
The most potentially dangerous bill of 2019 was CSSB2126. It was pitched under the guise of creating sand traps in the San Jacinto. The theory: keep sand from migrating downstream where it creates sediment dams, such as the mouth bar. Proponents (including TACA) pitched it as a way to get free dredging.
It would have allowed the SJRA and Harris County Flood Control District to dredge the San Jacinto River to restore conveyance without a permit – if they place the spoils on private land. It died in the House, but was reincarnated as HB1824. That bill passed both houses and is on the Governor’s desk.
I feared that this bill would have opened the door to river mining in the San Jacinto. The reason I feared this? Proponents of the bill said they wanted to create “sand traps.” But no one could agree on what they were or where they would be. Language in the bill was EXTREMELY vague and open ended, a practice that can lead to abuses. It doesn’t even mention sand traps. Meanwhile…
River mining is outlawed in many countries because it is so environmentally destructive.
Environmental groups, such as the Bayou Land Conservancy, tried to add language that would have called for independent studies, before allowing miners in the river.
Time Will Tell: Vigilance Required
A major focus of my efforts since Harvey was to increase setbacks from the river for mines. This bill went in the other direction. It allows miners in the river under the guise of “helping” reduce the sedimentation that they “helped” create.
In reality it also reduces their costs by giving them access to land (the river) without paying leasehold fees or taxes. It also gives developers a way to get free fill that can be dumped in the floodplain without permits. And that could put powerful pressure on politically sensitive, appointed boards, such the SJRA’s.
Only time will tell whether the intentions of the drafters of this legislation were pure, or whether this is yet another sly and crafty grab by TACA. One thing is certain: it will require constant vigilance on the part of residents and environmental groups.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/30/2019
639 Days since Hurricane Harvey
All thoughts expressed in this post are my opinions on matters of public policy. They are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.