Triple PG Sand Mine Finally Starts Plugging Breach on White Oak Creek

In September, Imelda caused the Triple PG sand mine dikes to breach in multiple locations. As a result, the mine’s process water flushed into the drinking water for millions of people. When the owners left the breaches open for weeks, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) filed a harsh report with the Texas Attorney General. The AG then sued the mine on October 11.

While the Triple PG owners immediately rushed to seal off the most visible breach into Caney Creek on October 12, other breaches still remain open.

On Tuesday of this week, 46 days after the flood, the Triple PG mine was finally attempting to seal off the main breach into White Oak Creek, another tributary of Lake Houston. I took all of the photos below during the afternoon of November 4, 2019.

The TCEQ had fined Triple PG in 2015. TCEQ again fined the mine in May of this year for allowing process water to escape into the City’s drinking water for weeks. That fine totaled more than $18,000. But when it happened again in September, the Texas Attorney General sued the owners for more a million dollars.

Triple PG White Oak Creek Breach Still Open on 11.4.19

After the AG suit, I thought repairs to all breaches would follow quickly. So I rented a helicopter on 11.4.2019 to check their status. That’s when I took all the photos below. What I saw should have shocked me, but sadly, it did not.

Miners had not yet sealed the White Oak breach. And a white substance was floating out of the mine through it.

Triple PG attempts to repair breach to White Oak Creek on 11/4/2019. The narrow, washed out section of the road on the right looks like it might have been a previous attempt at a repair that failed already.

Meanwhile, Repairs to Triple PG Caney Creek Breach Failing Already

Meanwhile, the breach repair (below), first photographed on October 12, appeared to be slumping into Caney Creek already. Notice how the road is collapsing near the trees at the bottom of the frame in this photo. Glad I’m not driving heavy equipment over that road! Quick call the MSHA! Notice also the difference in the water elevation on either side.

The repair to the Caney Creek breach completed last month appears to be failing already.
Looking west over Caney Creek in the foreground. Erosion is already visible in this side shot of the same repair from a different angle.

Water appears to be piping through the dirt in the repaired breach. Note the wet appearance in several places that also exhibit erosion near the bottom of the dike. Piping is one of the major causes of dike failure. Water seeps under the dike creating channels which undermine it.

Trapped Stormwater: A Problem for Mines in Floodways

A high and constant level of the water in a such a mine creates outward pressure on dikes that invites failure. A spokesman for the Mine Safety and Health Administration said that typically mines must find ways to get rid of excess water after heavy rains or risk breaches. Some try engineered solutions such as spillways. However, Triple PG mine also faces environmental constraints. Specifically, Triple PG cannot flush its process water into the City’s drinking water. Especially when the Attorney General is looking over their shoulder.

My conclusion. Floodways are just dangerous places to build sand mines and this mine sits in two floodways.

Six More Breaches

Here’s a second breach into Caney Creek that they haven’t even started repairing. It appears that water overflowed the pit and started traversing down the side on a diagonal. Note the tree leaning into the creek in the sandy area at the bottom.
And a third breach into Caney Creek. But at least they repaired the road above this one.
And a fourth breach into Caney Creek.
And a second breach into White Oak Creek behind the mine’s stockpile.
And the start of an exit breach along the mine’s southern perimeter where so many homes in Walden Woods flooded. To my eye, it appears that there is little or no elevation difference between the mine road and surrounding homes. So I am not even sure that this qualifies as a dike, or is just the edge of a pond.
And the mother of all breaches on the north side of the mine.

Tick Tock Tick Tock

The suit filed by the Texas Attorney General seeks monetary relief of “not more than $1 million.” But here’s where it gets interesting. The Texas Water Code section 7.102 states that penalties can range up to $25,000 per day for EACH day of EACH violation. It also specifies that “Each day of a CONTINUING violation is a SEPARATE violation.”

With all of these other breaches (that the TCEQ investigators could not see when they first inspected the mine because of washed out roads), these violations could add up quickly. Let’s see. 48 days x $25,000 = $1,200,000 for each breach. If the AG amended the lawsuit, that could add up to some serious bank.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11.6.2019

799 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 48 since Imelda

The thoughts expressed in this post represent my opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.