Triple P.G. Sand Development LLC appears to have violated provisions of an injunction by dredging before its trail and flooding neighboring properties with industrial waste water.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing the mine for discharging millions of gallons of process wastewater into the headwaters of Lake Houston last year. On November 25th, 2019, the mining company (operated by a cardiologist from Nacogdoches, Tx., Prabhakar Guniganti, MD), agreed to the terms of a temporary injunction. Within days, his employees apparently started violating it.
Terms of Injunction
In part, the injunction stipulated that the defendant shall:
- Not conduct any dredging operations at the Facility.
- Not engage in any operations at its Facility that discharge process wastewater, nor shall Defendant engage in any operations at the Facility that produce process wastewater that must be discharged off Defendant’s property without express prior approval from TCEQ.
- Immediately and permanently cease and prevent all discharges of any Industrial Waste and/or Process Wastewater from the Facility into or adjacent to waters in the state.
- Not allow any discharge of water that is in or has ever been in the Facility’s Dredge Ponds without the express prior approval of TCEQ.
Aerial Photos Show Potential Violations
The aerial photos below show that within eight days of agreeing to the injunction, the mine started pumping process wastewater OVER BERMS into a pit that then overflowed onto the property of adjoining landowners and lands adjacent to White Oak Creek.
Before showing you the photos, let me show you a satellite image that helps illustrate the relationship between the different elements of this report.
The lot lines are from the Montgomery County Appraisal District Web Site. The properties within the red oval belong to multiple people or trusts. Guniganti owns the large forested areas outside the red oval and west of the mine. However…
Water pumped out of the mine’s wastewater pond is now flooding neighboring properties within the red oval that he does not own. The mine also dug a ditch around the perimeter of its property (solid red line) through dense forest that channels the process wastewater toward White Oak Creek (solid blue line) and the wetlands along it. It’s not clear, though, whether the wastewater has actually entered the creek yet; the forest canopy limits visibility. Regardless, the injunction says they can’t discharge waste adjacent to waters of the state.
No Flooding That Lasted Months of Adjoining Properties Until Injunction
None of the historical satellite images in Google Earth dating back to 1989 show flooding in the red oval. Some of the properties in the red oval lie in the 100-year flood plain. However, there has been no widespread flooding in this area since Imelda on September 19, 2019.
Nor has there been prolonged flooding as far as I can determine. Photos taken of this exact location on 9/27/2019, ten days after Imelda, show no flooding of the adjacent properties. Likewise, the property was not flooded on 9/14/2017, two weeks after Harvey. I can find no evidence that this area has ever flooded for months before.
For months, I’ve been watching waste water build higher and higher in the area above until it overflowed the pit and invaded neighboring properties. That made me curious and prompted a review of thousands of aerial photos. Here’s what I found.
Photos Taken In November Before Injunction Show Neighboring Land Still Not Flooded
The neighboring properties were NOT flooded on November 4, 2019 (before the injunction). Notice the level of water in the foreground pit – higher than after Imelda, but still waaaay short of overflowing.
Think of the November 4th photo below as the “before” shot. Compare it with other photos below taken from December through March 2020.
After Injunction, Mine Starts PUMPING Waste Water OVER Dike
Eight days AFTER the injunction, on December 3, 2019, I flew over the mine again. I noticed that the mine was pumping water out of its main waste water pond and into the pit in the photo above. But the pit had not yet overflowed. Here’s how the pumping looked. (Note: You can even see the pumping from outer space if you zoom in on this area within Google Earth and look at the Dec. 1 satellite image.)
On January 20, Pumping Continues From Different Location
I flew over the mine again on January 20, 2020; the pumping from and into the same pits continued – but from a different location.
From where you lose visibility of the ditch under the forest canopy to White Oak Creek is about 80 yards according to Google Earth.
Floodwaters Even Higher on February 13
On my February 13, 2020, overflight, I captured the following images. They show the floodwater had risen even higher and backed up farther.
Water backed up so far, it even flowed into the utility corridor at the north end of the mine.
In March, Possible Dredging Observed, Still Flooding Neighboring Properties
In March, one of the first things I noticed was the dredge. The cutterhead, which had been elevated for months, was now DOWN. That usually indicates the dredge is working. And that’s something the injunction prohibited.
The pond next to the waste water pit overflowed onto neighboring properties even more. It came right up to the road. Note the huge difference between the levels of the two ponds below.
Water In, Water Out
So water is leaving the processing equipment and going into the waste pit. It has to come in from somewhere. But where? As you can see from the photos below, the supply lines for the processing equipment come from the dredge pond.
In the shot above, you can see that the lowest pond in the whole operation is the pond receiving ALL the waste water. Why is that?
The Big Questions and Some Possible Answers
So it appears that the mine is pumping water out of the dredge pit, into the waste pit, and finally into the surrounding forest. The big questions are these.
- Why is the mine keeping the level of the water in the waste pit so low?
- Why is the mine flooding the surrounding forest and neighboring properties with industrial waste water?
- Is the waste water polluting White Oak Creek?
To hypothesize some answers to those questions, let’s look at two pictures: the first from February and the second from March.
From this one photo, we can see that to avoid dredging (per the injunction), the miners have started surface mining. But the level of mining is getting down to a) the water table, and b) the level of the waste pit.
Note the differing levels of water in the forest (top) and waste pit (middle). Also note that the level of the surface mining has now gone far below the level of sediment in the waste pond.
From this photo (and others in the series) we can conjecture what happened. Please note: I have no proof of this. It is only conjecture.
Theory for the Discharge
I suspect that the mine realized that if it were to continue filling orders while it waited for trial on June 22, 2020, it would need to start surface mining AND mine below the level of water in the waste pit. So, I’m guessing they started lowering the level of the pond to keep mining as long as possible.
I’m also guessing that the terms of the injunction and heightened scrutiny by the TCEQ meant they could no longer make excuses about discharging water into the creek. So they discharged into the forest instead…most of which Guniganti owns except for that strip north of the stockpile. If the discharge drained into White Oak Creek deep in the forest, at least it wouldn’t be visible.
Is Discharge Reaching White Oak Creek?
Is the waste-water pollution reaching White Oak Creek? Because of the dense forest canopy, that’s impossible to determine from the air. One could only tell from the ground. And because Guniganti owns all the land around the mine (except for the properties in the red circle), the only way to determine that would be by trespassing. That makes it impossible for ordinary citizens to spot any illegal discharge, such as Tony Buzbee did when he was running for Mayor of Houston. Fortunately, the TCEQ has the right to inspect the property from the ground if it suspects a violation of the restraining order. And they are investigating this.
Summary of Potential Violations
This whole affair once again raises questions about whether sand mines should be permitted in floodways. This mine actually sits at the confluence of TWO. Which is part of the reason why it was sued by the attorney general in the first place. Both Caney and White Oak Creeks captured the pit last year and the TCEQ estimates millions of gallons of process waste water were discharged without a permit into the headwaters of Lake Houston.
Meanwhile, Triple PG appears to be discharging again without the benefit of storms to blame the behavior on. They also appear to be violating terms of their injunction by:
- Discharging process wastewater
- Producing process wastewater that had to be discharged off their property.
- Discharging water that had been in the Facility’s Dredge Ponds.
- Discharging Industrial Waste and/or Process Wastewater adjacent to waters of the state (White Oak Creek)
I have contacted the TCEQ twice already about whether they permitted any of these activities. They have not responded yet, citing the ongoing investigation. However, I must believe that had they permitted the activities, they would not be investigating and would have replied immediately. They visited the site yesterday.
Posted by Bob Rehak on March 13, 2020
927 Days after Hurricane Harvey and 176 since Imelda
The thoughts expressed in this post represent 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.