TCEQ Accepting Public Comment on Sand Mine Practices for 30 Days

Yesterday, the TCEQ held a virtual hearing on sand-mine best management practices (BMPs). After listening to stakeholders on all sides of the issue, TCEQ agreed to allow public comment for another 30 days before making any recommendations to TCEQ commissioners.

Breakdown of Five-Hour Meeting

Yesterday’s hearing started with a description of the TCEQ rule-making process and timetable. The meeting then compared two sets of BMPs – one submitted by the Texas Aggregate and Concrete Association (TACA) and the other submitted by the Lake Houston Area Flood Prevention Initiative.

  • The good news: both sides agreed on most BMPs.
  • The bad news: Substantial disagreement remains on several crucial BMPs as well as the area(s) that the BMPs will apply to.

The TCEQ then allowed three stakeholders (Texans for Responsible Aggregate Mining [TRAM], the Bayou Land Conservancy and to make presentations.

After lunch, the meeting resumed for two hours of discussion about the BMPs.

At the end of the meeting, everyone agreed to extend the public comment period from 15 days to 30, given the importance of the effort and Thanksgiving.

No decisions were made at yesterday’s meeting. The objective was purely to give all interested stakeholders a chance to express their opinions.

Disagreement over Where BMPs Will Apply

TACA wanted the BMPs to apply only to the main stems of the East and West Forks of the San Jacinto. The Flood Prevention Initiative wanted them to apply to the tributaries of the East and West Forks also. In other words, the entire watershed upstream of Lake Houston.

The area of enforcement proposed by the Flood Prevention Initiative includes everything upstream of the Lake Houston Dam. However, TACA wants to exclude tributaries of the East and West forks.

Areas of Disagreement

Overall, the two sides disagreed on 12 of 41 BMPs. Of the twelve, the Flood Prevention Initiative and identified three as crucial.

  1. Minimum setbacks from rivers
  2. Performance bonds ensuring reclamation at the end of mining
  3. Whether compliance with BMPs should be voluntary or mandatory

For a summary of the rule making process and a complete breakdown of the differences in BMPs, see this special section of the TCEQ website set up for Sand Mining BMPs.

For more information on the three crucial BMPs mentioned above, see this presentation or read below. Presentation

I started my presentation by pointing out that the San Jacinto provides:

  • A source of sand for a few dozen companies
  • Water for 2 million people

Modern life would be impossible without concrete. But surviving for even a few days without clean water would be even more impossible. We must strike a balance to protect both industry and people.

Since Harvey, I have rented helicopters almost every month and taken approximately 17,500 photos of sand mines.

I’ve never claimed that sand mining was the only source of sedimentation in the river. But it is a large contributor in my opinion.

After Harvey, huge blockages showed up in the San Jacinto, such as the one below east of River Grove Park. The Army Corps found the river was 90% blocked in this area. Before they dredged it, the park flooded six times in three months on minor rains.

Such blockages led me to study sand mining best practices from around the country ever since. I tried to identify what other states did that Texas did not do. I identified ten BMPs that could help reduce sedimentation during floods.

However, I had no success in getting TACA to adopt them. Nevertheless, Bill McCabe and Dave Feille of the Lake Houston Area Flood Prevention initiative took up the challenge. Thanks to them, we are where we are today.

We have reached substantial agreement, but the sides remain far apart on three crucial measures.

The three remaining areas of substantial disagreement

The remainder of the presentation focuses on these issues.

Need for Greater Setbacks

Texas has no minimum setbacks for mines from rivers.

Other states specify minimum setbacks of varying widths.
This images shows the Texas Concrete Mine in Plum Grove on the East Fork and how the floodway (cross-hatched area) covers most of the mine.

This mine’s dikes breached in four places during Harvey and again during Imelda. Residents downstream described a sudden wave of water coming down on them as if a dam had broken.

The West Fork has far more mines. Between I-45 and I-69, a 20-mile distance, we have twenty square miles of sand mines, virtually all of them wholly or partially in the floodway. That makes the average width of the river one mile. And that increases the potential for erosion 33X.

One of several breaches at the Triple PG mine that remained open for months in 2019.

Because mines are so close to floodways, their dikes breach frequently. The Texas Attorney General is currently suing the mine above for more than a million dollars on behalf of the TCEQ. That’s the mine’s dredge pit in the foreground and Caney Creek in the background. The mine actually sits at the confluence of two floodways, White Oak Creek and Caney Creek. TCEQ alleges that water from one creek swept through the mine and went out to the other.

Floodwaters sweeping through mines are not the only source of sediment downstream. A mine’s dikes can also constrict floods as you see in the images below. This image shows a mine just west of I-45 and the West Fork.

Details from the red circle in the bottom image are shown in the close-up image above it. This mine walled off half the floodway with a dike approximately 50 feet high.

In all but the largest floods, such high dikes concentrate floodwater on the opposite side of the river above. That, in turn, increased velocity of water, accelerated erosion, and cost the businessman on the opposite shore more than seven acres of his property in ten years. Because floodwater had half the space to spread out, he floods more frequently and higher.

Regardless of the mechanism of erosion, the increased rate of sedimentation due to sand mining, has contributed to the buildup of sediment dams like the West Fork mouth bar (photographed above two weeks after Harvey). Such dams behind the dam contributed to flooding thousands of homes and businesses. They also are costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars to remove.

Greater setbacks could have easily avoided much of this expense. Sand miners are passing their cleanup costs along to the public.

Greater setbacks would help reduce flooding. They could also help improve water quality.

See below: the day the West Fork turned white.

The TCEQ found that a dike at a mine upstream broke releasing an estimated 56 million gallons of whitish sludge into the West Fork.

The photo above shows the upstream limit of Lake Houston. The water elevation at the I-69 bridge normally matches the water elevation at the Lake Houston dam. So this IS our drinking water you’re looking at. Removing all this sludge before it reaches your tap is a large part of your water bill every month. Greater setbacks from the river could have prevented this catastrophe as well.

Performance Bonds for Reclamation

In Texas, miners need to file a reclamation plan before they start mining. But when they are done, nothing obligates them to execute the plan.

Many miners can and do walk away from mines. A performance bond filed before they start mining would ensure that money for cleanup when they were done. If they rehabilitated the property, they would get the money back. But if they did NOT, taxpayers would not have to foot the bill or leave dangerous eyesores in their midst.

At a minimum, miners should revegetate disturbed areas to reduce the potential for erosion and sedimentation. Shown above, the Texas Concrete Plum Grove Plant after the operator walked away from it more than a year ago. No attempt has yet been made at restoration, although TCEQ is pursuing them.
Shown above: (top l to r) Abandoned dredge, concrete crushing facility at abandoned mine, abandoned equipment. Bottom Left: abandoned pipe.

Need for Mandatory, not Voluntary Best Practices

TACA would like best practices to be voluntary. Can you imagine the state of the U.S. Treasury if the IRS considered paying taxes optional?

Shown above: an abandoned sand pit on North Houston Avenue in Humble. This pit has no fencing or berms around the perimeter like it should. Worse, the steep-sided slopes break off in slabs. Erosion now threaten adjacent businesses and roadways.
West Fork mine contaminated with cyanobacteria. Cyanotoxins, sometimes formed by the bacteria, are the most potent in nature according to the CDC. CDC also says there is no known cure. I caught this mine pumping bacteria-laden water into wetlands.
Mines that do not comply with regs put those that do comply at a competitive disadvantage.
Complying with safety regulations should not be optional.

The top photo above shows what happened when the Triple PG mine mined too close to a Kinder Morgan natural gas pipeline. Headward erosion during Imelda exposed it. Kinder Morgan buried a new pipeline 75 feet down. Incredibly, now the mine is mining ON TOP of the pipeline AGAIN!

The lower image shows five pipelines carrying highly volatile liquids at a West Fork mine. Headward erosion exposed them, too, when LMI mined too closely. The giant pipelines sagged like clotheslines across a 100-foot gap.


The six images below show the confluence of the West Fork and Spring Creek near I-69. I took them from different angles during different months, but they all show the same thing: sediment coming from the West Fork where a heavy concentration of sand mines exists. If miners voluntarily complied with best management practices, these photos would have looked far different.

West Fork from different angles is the siltier in each case.

An attempt to legislate BMPs in the last legislature failed. But we have yet another chance. Review the TCEQ site and if you see an opportunity to improve sand-mining best practices, now is the time to comment.

If you comment, make sure you explain why you feel the way you do. Don’t just say “I like X or Y.” Give your reasons. Cite your experience. That will help the TCEQ formulate regulations that make a difference.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/11/2020

1170 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 419 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.