River Mining Without Permit Goes Without Investigation

On April 21st, 2020, I reported on a sand mine that was river mining in the San Jacinto West Fork without a permit. It’s unlikely that any penalties will result. In fact, three weeks later, neither the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), nor Texas Parks and Wildlife Division (TPWD), have even investigated the incident. State Representative Dan Huberty is calling on the heads of both agencies to understand why.

No Investigation by TCEQ or TPWD

The operation is called the Spring Wet Sand and Gravel Plant. Multisource Sand and Gravel Co., LTD, based in San Antonio, operates the plant.

I filed a complaint with the TCEQ on April 21. TCEQ referred it to the TPWD for investigation because TPWD regulates sand mining in rivers. Yet Parks and Wildlife did not even investigate the incident.

A TPWD game warden in Montgomery County said, “We need to catch them in the act. And even if we do, the fine is like getting a speeding ticket – inconsequential. It’s only about $500 per dump truck. At this point there’s no way to prove how much sand they removed. A better solution would be to have TCEQ pull their permit. We see these kinds of things right before a mine goes out of business. They just go out there and get the last sand they can get before they leave.”

Spring Wet Sand and Gravel may not have reached the end of operations yet, but pickings are getting slimmer as some of the photos below will show.

Scope of Mining More Apparent in May Photos

Compared to April 21 (when the SJRA was still releasing water from Lake Conroe), a recent flyover on May 11th revealed the full scope of the river mining.

Measurements in Google Earth show the point bar occupied about 7.5 acres. Assuming an average height of three feet, that area held more than 36,000 cubic yards of sand. That would equate to about 3,600 regular dump trucks (10 yards per average load).

At $500 per truckload, that totals $1.8 million. And that doesn’t even include the 8% tax that TPWD gave up on sales. But it’s not worth their time?

You have to catch a lot of hunters and fishermen without licenses to make up that kind of money. You would think it might be worthwhile for TPWD to investigate … even if it’s just half that much. That could probably pay the salaries of at least a dozen full-time employees.

This is just one more in a series of egregious incidents involving Montgomery County and sand mines. They include consistent under-appraisals, intentional breaches, and allegedly polluting the drinking water of 2 million people.

Photo taken on May 11. Looking downstream outside the Spring Wet Sand and Gravel Plant, just south of SH 99.
Closer shot reveals scrape marks from excavator are still visible. See lower right. Also note little pile of orange sand left behind.

The presence of the orange pile in the right foreground may provide a clue as to why the miners did not excavate lower in this location. Sometimes color continuity of sand from batch to batch is important. For instance, when making concrete blocks for a building, owners usually want the color of all the blocks to be uniform.

Looking upstream from the opposite end of the point bar.
The platform used by mining equipment may provide a clue as to the depth of the excavation.
Spring Wet Sand and Gravel plant in the background and road leading to river excavation.
Looking a little more to the south shows the full extent of Spring Wet Sand and Gravel’s operations in the background.
On May 11, the only activity visible inside the entire mine was the dry mining shown above. This may not be the end for this mine, but pickings appear to be getting slimmer.
Spring Wet Sand and Gravel’s main processing facility

State Representative Huberty’s Response

Upon learning that TPWD chose not to investigate the river mining, State Representative Dan Huberty immediately contacted the directors of TPWD and the TCEQ to request explanations. Huberty has fought for a decade to regulate the industry in a way that protects both the public and law-abiding miners.

Dangers of River Mining

The type of river mining shown here is called “bar scalping” by scientists who study the impact of river mining. Some see bar scalping as the least destructive form of river mining. In general, though, most scientists still warn about dangers of river mining.

Immediate and long-term risks include:

  • Increases in river bed and bank erosion both up- and downstream
  • Loss of agriculture land, houses and infrastructure
  • Failure of roads, dikes and bridges
  • Lowering of groundwater reserves
  • Reduction in water quality
  • Reduction in diversity and abundance of fish
  • Changes to riverside vegetation

For those reasons and more, river mining is prohibited in most countries of Europe. According to the World Wildlife Fund, “Europe has shown that developed economies can continue to prosper without resorting to river sand. Its supplies now come from crushed quarry rocks, recycled concrete and marine sand.”

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/13/2020

987 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.