Abandoned Sand Mines Leave Lasting Legacy of Loss in Southeast Texas

More than a decade after one San Jacinto West Fork sand mine stopped mining, the abandoned mine is still: 

  • Inundated by floods 
  • Leaking silty water into the river from multiple locations
  • Littered with mining debris
  • Unrestored.

That Was The Good News

Worse, it has little hope of ever being restored. The West Fork has captured one of the mine’s main pits as predicted two years ago. Now, process wastewater leaks from an upstream mine into the abandoned mine, and from there, into the river.

TACA fondly says that mines CAN be repurposed into lakes that make recreational amenities for residential developments. That’s true. If miners cared. If someone was watching. And if we had regulations that forced reclamation. 

Last week, I published a story about an abandoned Texas Concrete Plum Grove plant on the East Fork. Today, I focus on a West Fork mine that used to be operated by River Aggregates as the Porter Sand and Gravel Plant. See below.

Landsat image from 10/28/2017. Comparison of this satellite image and the one below, both from Google Earth, shows that the area inside the large red circle was a settling pond in danger of being captured by the river. And it was. See below.
Google Earth image from 12/1/2019, thirteen months later. Mine is outlined in red. Circles represent breaches that I will discuss below. New development on right is Northpark Woods.

The mine in question lies between Sorters-McClellan Road and the West Fork, and just north of the Northpark drainage ditch. It sits immediately west of the new Northpark Woods subdivision. The last image in Google Earth that shows active mining was dated 2008.

Current Images Show Lasting Leaks

Looking southeast. Both ends of the main pond (adjacent to the Hallett mine) have sprouted leaks. This is on the northwest side of the mine. Photo taken 4/21/2019.
Looking southwest. The Hallett Mine, above the mine in satellite photos above, is almost overflowing in this image taken on 4/21/2019. It sometimes does overflow. See below.
Looking northeast. Top circle shows where the Hallett Mine sometimes leaks into the mine in question. Bottom circle shows where the second mine then leaks into the West Fork (in the right foreground). Photo taken 4/21/2019.
At the other (southeastern) end of the same pond, river migration cut into the wall that separated the mine from the West Fork. The pond now constantly leaks into the West Fork. Photo taken 4/21/2019.
Here’s how it looks from the reverse angle. Looking east toward Northpark Woods development in upper right next to Northpark Drainage Ditch Photo taken 4/21/2019. Compare this with the photo below.

River Migration Led to Transformation

On September 14, 2017, I photographed the same mine from the same angle. Here’s how it looked then. Note that a narrow strip of land only a few feet wide separated the mine from the river at that time.

As the images above show, sometime between 10/28/2017 and 12/1/2019, the West Fork migrated into the mine’s settling pond. The breach then allowed the mine’s wastewater and wastewater from surrounding ponds to drain into the West Fork.

In 2018, on the first anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, I discussed the mine above in a post about river migration. The post said, “At the current rate, without human intervention, river migration should capture the mine … in about three years.” It took less than that.

The owner of this land, Hannover Estates, sold the part on higher ground to a Colorado developer that is now building Northpark Woods.

Abandoned Mine Creates Lasting Legacy of Loss

The abandoned mine will not be much of an amenity for buyers in Northpark Woods. The forests and wetlands that once made this area such an ecologically rich place to explore are gone forever. So are the deer and the fish.

But downstream residents have it worse. They receive all the sediment flowing out of such mines and clogging the river. They must spend hundreds of millions of dollars to restore conveyance of the river so their homes and businesses don’t flood.

As a final insult, Montgomery County collects only about $12.50 per acre per year in tax on this barren 173-acre plot of land.

Lessons from Loss

There are two lessons to take away from this and other abandoned mines. We need legislation that mandates:

  • Greater setbacks from rivers for mines. Get them out of the meander belt.
  • Posting of performance bonds the guarantee reclamation before miners start mining.

Miners can and do sometimes simply ignore the promises they made to restore the land before they got their permit to start mining. When they do, they leave us with a barren moonscape. Littered with craters. And a lasting legacy of loss.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/11/2020

986 Days after Hurricane Harvey

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.