We Must Strengthen Sand-Mining BMPs: Minimum Setbacks Just Part of Solution

At long last, the State of Texas could soon adopt minimum setbacks from rivers for sand mining.

The Lake Houston Area Flood Prevention Initiative has been working with the Texas Aggregate and Concrete Association (TACA) and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for two years to create a set of Best Management Practices (BMPs). The BMPs would apply only to sand-mining operations in the San Jacinto River Watershed.

The TCEQ has published a draft of proposed regulations and is now seeking public comment. Comments are due by August 19.

The proposed regulations are a great step forward in one sense. They plug some gaping holes that Texas has compared to other states. However, I believe they can and should be stronger.

Texas Currently Has No Minimum Setbacks

For instance, take minimum setbacks from rivers. Right now, Texas has no minimum setback. Some mines can and do mine right up to the edge of rivers, leaving only the width of a flimsy dike made out of sand between them and a raging river when floodwaters rise.

  • Most states define 100 feet as the minimum setback.
  • Alaska sets the minimum from a public water supply at 1,000 feet.
  • But other states, such as Arizona, take another approach altogether. Instead of specifying fixed widths, they define “erosion hazard zones.”

Erosion Hazard Zones Substituted for Defined Distances in Some States

Erosion hazard zones would take into account factors such as whether mining occurred on the eroding side of a river or on the side where sand is building up. An erosion hazard zone might also take into account the steepness of the surrounding slopes. Such zones are based on site assessments by engineers and may even take into account rates of river migration.

An erosion hazard zone might also take into account being downstream from the Lake Conroe Dam which released 80,000 CFS on top of Harvey’s already prodigious floodwaters. By itself, 80,000 CFS would have been the ninth largest flood in West Fork history.

The draft regulations currently under consideration specify a minimum 100-foot buffer zone adjacent to perennial streams wider than 20 feet, 50 feet for perennial streams less than 20 feet wide, and 35 feet for intermittent streams.

To learn more about how other states and countries handle setbacks, see the links on the Sand Mining page.

Minimum Setbacks By Themselves Are Only Part of Solution

Since Harvey, I have flown up and down the East and West Forks of the San Jacinto dozens of times and taken more than 27,000 photographs.

I have witnessed many dike breaches. Sometimes they are intentional.

Sometimes a large storm causes rivers to erode into pits – a phenomenon called pit capture.

Here, one mine leaks into a second mine (abandoned in lower right), which in turn leaks into West Fork 1200 feet away.
Breach in 400-foot wide buffer zone that happened sometime after Harvey. Exact date unknown.
This mine along Caney Creek had a 150-foot-wide vegetated buffer, that held just fine through Harvey, but miraculously couldn’t survive the unnamed flood of May 2019.
Stream level photo of breach above. Note the trackhoe marks on the side of the breach.

The point is this. Even with 100 foot setbacks, many breaches still occur. If a mine wants to get rid of wastewater, it will find a way.

It can always just pump water over the side of a dike.

One of many pumping operations I have documented.

Some put pipes through dikes to ensure wastewater never exceeds a certain level.

One of many pipes I have documented.

Or they can build dikes out of materials designed to fail under pressure.

Former dike at Triple PG mine being sued by Texas Attorney General

The hundred foot setbacks would, however, make many of these practices more difficult by making them more conspicuous.

And the requirement to have the buffer zone vegetated (another BMP), would eliminate situations like the narrow strip below.

Easily erodible, unvegetated buffer strip with steep sides at mine on West Fork (foreground).

My Take

All things considered, when the penalty for non-compliance averages $800 per incident, some will continue to ignore BMPs. Not all. But some.

As of August 2018, TCEQ had raised a half-million dollars in fines for more than 13,000 incidents statewide during the previous five years. If you look just at the last half of 2017 (after Harvey), the TCEQ levied about $140,000 in fines STATEWIDE – far less than it cost to repair ONE average home in Kingwood as a result of Harvey.

That’s why I say that by itself, the width of a buffer strip will help, but not solve the problem.

How do you feel? $220 million of your tax dollars are going toward dredging. Please share your feelings with the TCEQ.

How to Make a Public Comment

Submit written comments on BMPs to Macayla.Coleman@Tceq.Texas.gov with the subject line “BMPs Guidance Document” before August 19, 2021.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/11/2021

1443 Days since 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.