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TCEQ Cites Sand Mine for Allegedly Discharging 56 Million Gallons of White Pollution into West Fork

After receiving complaints and news reports of bright white water in the West Fork of the San Jacinto, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) launched aerial and ground investigations.

West Fork near US59 bridge. Photo taken 11/4/2019.

They found three mines discharging process water into the West Fork of the San Jacinto.

  • Sorters-Eagle Mine, used as Placement Area #2 by the Army Corps, at 231 McClellan Road in Kingwood
  • RGI Materials at 18185 Hill Road in Porter
  • Liberty Materials at 19515 Moorhead Road in Conroe

The Corps found that the discharge from the Eagle-Sorters mine was related to equipment installed by the Corps which is being removed. Therefore, the TCEQ considered it a permitted discharge and did not issue a Notice of Enforcement.

The other two mines, however, were different stories. The TCEQ issued Notices of Enforcement to both for alleged unauthorized discharges of process water.

Double Breach at RGI

At RGI, TCEQ investigators found that a process wastewater pond breached into a stormwater pond. That, in turn, breached into the West Fork. (Click the link above to see the complete investigation report.) Investigators cited the mine for one alleged violation for failure to prevent the unauthorized discharge of process water. The same mine already had one active notice of enforcement for a violation that allegedly occurred on 10/2/2019.

Loss of 56-Million Gallons of Milky-White Waste Water Goes Unnoticed

At Liberty Materials, TCEQ investigators found a 6′ deep by 30′ wide berm breach still discharging process wastewater when they arrived. The initial burst of wastewater had spread out more than 90 feet and had matted down vegetation for 850 feet. The water then entered a gully which emptied into the West Fork. Investigators say the discharge was milky white in color. They also say that water marks indicate the process pond had dropped approximately 3 to 4 feet!

Unauthorized discharge of white process water by Liberty mine on 11/6. Photographed by TCEQ.

Surprisingly, investigators had to notify the operator of the breach. He professed ignorance of it.

The TCEQ cited the mine for unauthorized discharge of pollutants. Their 124-page report makes interesting reading. The investigators collected numerous samples of water and tested for total dissolved solids.

They found one sample contained almost 25X more than the standard limit for dissolved solids in that part of the river.

From Page 100 of the TCEQ investigation of Liberty Material’s Moorhead Plant on 11/6/2019.

They also estimate that a four-foot water drop in the process pond would have dumped more than 56 million gallons of pollution into the West Fork.

“Not Sure. Don’t Know. No Clue. Duh!”

A “must-read” is the interview with one of the mine’s managers on pages 113-114. Some excepts:

  • When did the berm breach occur? Answer: Not sure.
  • How did it occur? Answer: Not sure.
  • Do you have maintenance logs for berm repairs? Answer: Don’t keep them.
  • What happened to the berm of the missing pond? Answer: No clue.
  • When did the berm go? No clue.
  • How did the berm go? No clue.
  • How much did you discharge? Not sure.

Are we really to believe that a competent manager would not notice the loss of four feet of water in his process pond?

Incident Highlights Two Problems

Nowhere does the report say that the milky white discharge that I photographed further downriver two days before this investigation came from this mine. In that sense, the findings of these investigations probably will not satisfy the public’s passion for closure.

But they do shine a spotlight on two problems.

Problem #1:

This was the sixth alleged violation for the Liberty mine on Moorehead in 2.5 years. They allegedly dumped 56 million gallons of pollution into the West Fork without noticing it and played dumb when investigators caught them in the act. They just do not fear the penalties which have averaged $800 per incident statewide since 2011. At that rate, pollution becomes part of miners’ business plans.

Problem #2:

TACA kills almost all attempts at reasonable regulation by bottling the proposals up in committee every legislature.

Business Friendly Vs. Resident Hostile

I cannot understand how state government allows such flagrant behavior to continue. A teenager who got caught breaking into cars six times in 2.5 years would be heading to Huntsville. Dump 56,000,000 gallons of pollution in a public drinking-water source and you get the equivalent of a speeding ticket. All you have to say to the judge evidently is, “Duh!”, and you’re right back in business.

Go figure. Why does “business-friendly” have to mean “resident-hostile”?

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/1/2019 with thanks to the TCEQ

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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.