Price of Progress?

Some say that mining sand from our rivers and flood plains is the price of progress.

Looking west at part of Hallett Mine Complex bisected by the West Fork of San Jacinto. Photographed 1/1/22. The pond in the middle foreground is part of another abandoned mine adjacent to Hallett.

Pros and Cons

Sand has its benefits. We need it to make concrete. And we need concrete to accommodate a growing population. And a growing population creates income for builders, tradesmen and other businesses.

But mining sand also has several downsides. It alters the environment on a large scale. Wildlife lose habitat. Erosion increases. The sediment can contribute to flooding by forming dams and reducing conveyance downstream. Water quality also suffers. These are global problems.

Out of Sight. Out of Time. Out of Mind.

Sand mining mostly takes place in floodplains along rivers. Because our terrain offers no elevated viewpoints, the only way to see the mines is from the air. So for the vast majority of people, they’re out of sight, out of mind and, as a consequence, we’re out of time. More than 20 square miles of sand mines already border the San Jacinto West Fork between I-45 and I-69.

The Hallett mine complex in Porter and an adjacent abandoned mine now stretch 3 miles north to south and 2 miles east to west. And Hallett is just one of several such complexes on the West Fork.

New Best Management Practices recently adopted by the TCEQ for sand mining will help in the future. But much damage has already been done.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s time to start a conversation about the price of progress. How do we restore this land to another useful purpose in the long run? And who should pay for that?

Looking south from farther west at the end of the pond mentioned above. Note outfall to river, top left. Also note recent repairs to Hallett dike, bottom right.
Looking east across abandoned mine complex to left of river, which flows from bottom to top. New Northpark Woods subdivision is in upper left. Part of Hallett mine is on right.
Satellite photo from 2020 courtesy of Google Earth showing Hallett and adjacent abandoned mines.

The Long-Term Question

What do you do with an area this large when miners finish?

  • Do the ponds turn into recreational amenities and parks? (Not when left like those in the third photo!)
  • Who will plant grass and trees?
  • What do you do with the old equipment?
  • How do you turn these areas into detention ponds?
  • Who maintains them? (Montgomery County doesn’t even have a flood control district.)
  • What happens to bordering neighborhoods if rivers decide to reroute themselves through the pits?

Lots of questions. Little consensus.

When you start out to create a detention pond, it’s easy to plan recreation around it. But when the primary goal is mining, the end result can be dangerous, i.e., banks that cave in after miners walk away or kids playing on abandoned equipment.

Abandoned dredge at abandoned Humble mine on north Houston Avenue has been there since Harvey. Area is unfenced.
Rusting processing equipment left at same abandoned Humble mine near West Fork. This is between a driving range and a paintball park.

The new Best Management Practices do not require miners to post a performance bond that would ensure cleanup and conversion to a suitable post-mining use.

In some areas, city and county governments make arrangements with miners to take over abandoned mines. That seems like a decent idea to me. That may be the price of progress.

We need dialog on this issue – unless we’re willing to let private industry turn our rivers into eyesores.

Posted by Bob Rehak

1591 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.

TCEQ Levies $19,063 Fine Against Texas Concrete Plum Grove Plant

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has assessed a penalty of $19,063 against the Texas Concrete Plum Grove Plant at 7530 FM1010 in Cleveland, TX. The complaint stems from three incidents in 2019 and alleges unauthorized discharge of 40 million gallons of process wastewater; failure to keep proper and accurate water sampling records; and lack of soil stabilization at the site before abandonment. The complaint also alleges that one breach in the mine’s dike was 20-feet wide.

Unstabilized soil at abandoned Texas Concrete Mine. Photo taken April 21, 2020. Comparison with satellite images shows equipment has not moved since 12/1/2019.

Terms of “Proposed Agreed Order”

A “Proposed Agreed Order” dated April 14, 2020, spells out the basis for the alleged violations. Such orders represent a way for both Texas Concrete and the TCEQ to avoid the cost of litigation. The goals of the order: to reach a fair settlement under Texas law and force Texas Concrete to take corrective actions.

Unless Texas Concrete signs the order and pays the fine within 60 days, TCEQ will forward the case to its litigation division. The settlement offer then becomes void.

More Recent Alleged Violations

The enforcement action is in addition to a more recent investigation launched on April 28th of this year. The investigation alleged unauthorized discharge of water and lack of stabilization at the site. A TCEQ letter in response to an inquiry by State Representative Dan Huberty indicated that the investigator could not gain access to the site because no one was there. However, the investigator made limited visual observations from the property boundary. No processing activity was noted. There is no signage. And portions of the Site appear overgrown with vegetation.

The letter also indicates that TCEQ has tried to contact the site’s owner to gain access to the property for a proper investigation.

However, all communication efforts since April 28 have been unsuccessful.

Case Demonstrates Need for Performance Bonds for Reclamation

Calls to Texas Concrete’s headquarters in Houston by received a similar response. The person answering the company phone claimed they had no plant in Plum Grove. The person also said that she had never heard of Mr. Somaiah Kurre, the person listed as President of Texas Concrete Sand and Gravel, Inc. on the company’s permit. The phone of the plant’s manager had been disconnected.

The company’s web site indicates the Plum Grove Plant is still in operation, even though equipment on the site has not moved since December 1, 2019.

Ironically, Pit & Quarry magazine, and industry trade publication, featured the Texas Concrete Plum Grove Plant as a model for how to adapt to change. The article was dated January 16th of this year.

In the meantime, the plant represents a safety hazard to area children. The gate presents no real barrier to someone intent on trespassing. Pits on such mines can be 90 feet deep according to industry sources. And perimeter roads often collapse.

Such problems underscore the difficulty of getting operators to reclaim a mine when it becomes unprofitable. That’s why Texas should establish performance bonds that guarantee reclamation before the State grants a permit to begin mining.

“We will make sure they fix this,” said State Rep. Huberty. Huberty’s staff is already drafting more sand mining legislation for the session next year.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/7/2020

982 Days after Hurricane Harvey