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SJRA Seeks Public Input on Sediment Trap Proposal

The San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) recently completed a 246-page conceptual design study, in partnership with the Harris County Flood Control District, that explored the feasibility of implementing sediment trapping facilities (“sand traps”). The purpose: to remove sediment from the West or East Fork of the San Jacinto River. The results and findings of this study have been documented in an engineering report entitled “San Jacinto River and Tributaries Sediment Removal and Sand Trap Development.” 

Prior to proceeding to preliminary engineering design and any subsequent project phases, SJRA is seeking public input on the proposed project alternatives detailed in the report. The full report, as well as a brief summary document, are located on SJRA’s Flood Management Division website. 

How to Provide Input or Ask Questions

Please submit input and questions via email to floodmanagementdivision@sjra.net

Deadline: No later than April 29, 2022

Caution: The full study is dated 1/7/22. But the “brief summary” is dated 3/9/22. Make sure you at least read the executive study of the full report as well as the brief summary. There are important differences.

Overview/Purpose

SJRA says the purpose of the sediment trap study was to assess the feasibility of implementing a pilot project to trap and remove sediment from the West OR East Fork of the San Jacinto. The study only assessed locations where one or more Aggregate Production Operations (APOs) could partner with the the SJRA. They restricted the study this way to reduce costs; the SJRA does not have a source of funding to clean out sand traps and would rely on sand miners.

Initial Concerns

The decisions to:

  • Define the study objective as sediment reduction, not damage reduction and…
  • Only consider locations near sand mines…

…give me mixed emotions about this project.

Pros

On one hand, I look at this and say, “It’s a pilot project. Try it and see if there’s a benefit.” Sediment IS a problem and they believe they can remove up to 100% of the annual sediment load (from the West Fork).

Cons

On the other hand, the study authors, Freese & Nichols (F&N) claimed (in the San Jacinto River Basin Master Drainage Study) that of all the sediment coming into Lake Houston, two thirds comes from Spring and Cypress Creeks while only 13% comes from the West Fork upstream of US59.

Perhaps that’s because they’re using model inputs from a sediment gage at I-45 located 8.5 miles upstream from most of the large West Fork sand mines (page 34, paragraph 3 of full study).

Also, in their discussion of downstream sedimentation mitigation (page 51, paragraph 3 of full study), F&N says that their evaluation was confined to areas where natural processes rather than breeches of sand mine ponds likely contributed to sediment deposition. To see how limiting that is, see the photos of sand mine breeches and their results in this post.

West Fork Mouth Bar
The “Mouth Bar,” a giant sand bar that blocked the West Fork of the San Jacinto, backing the river up into Kingwood and Humble. Thousands of homes and businesses flooded behind this blockage. The above-water portion has since been removed, but most of the underwater portion remains.

In the entire 246-page F&N study and the three-page summary, the word “damage” occurs only once…in relation to erosion damage, NOT flood damage.

It appears that F&N did not even look at creating sand traps where they were most needed, in the headwaters of Lake Houston, because of cost and logistical considerations. Yet the Army Corps, City of Houston, and State of Texas are spending $200 million to dredge that area. One wonders whether SJRA should have looked harder for partners to clean out the traps.

Finally, if sediment traps only work financially near sand mines, the “solution” will not work on other tributaries that F&N alleges contribute 5X more sediment than the West Fork. They just don’t have the sand mines that the West Fork has.

Nature of Proposed Solution

Five years after Harvey, we have a conceptual design and a recommended location: rock-lined channels cut through one or two point bars at the West Fork Hallett mine.

Page 8 of the F&N study shows this schematic of the recommended solution.

The shot below shows the same area in real life. To put the magnitude of the proposed solution into perspective, the solution would cover a little more than an acre. But sand mines like Hallett cover 20 square miles on the banks of the West Fork between US59 and I-45.

2021 photo of sand bar outsde Hallett mine that would have a narrow channel cut through it to trap sand.

My Biggest Fears

My biggest fears with the proposed pilot study are that it:

  1. Asks people to chose from a limited menu.
  2. Could divert attention from better solutions that would reduce flood risk faster in the headwaters of Lake Houston.
  3. Might make the public think the problem is solved.
  4. Could open the door to river mining and further destabilize the riverine environment.
  5. Is not a transferrable solution.

For a pilot study, that last point is troubling.

Also, F&N worries that removing too much sediment from the West Fork could create a “hungry-water” effect that increases erosion downstream. But they have no way of directly measuring how much sediment the West Fork transports. Or what percentage they would remove. That’s because they’re relying on a sediment gage upstream from the sand mines. This introduces an element of risk in the pilot study.

Recommendations Should Be Based on a Holistic Examination of Alternatives

Note lack of vegetation on this steep-sided, eroding bank of Hallett mine on West Fork in foreground.

Before moving forward with the pilot study, I suggest a more holistic examination of additional alternatives that might have a greater impact on reducing flood damage, not just sedimentation. Examples include, but are not limited to:

More on the sand trap proposal in coming days. In the meantime, please review the SJRA’s sediment trap proposal and forward your comments to the SJRA. I will also print thoughtful letters, both pro and con, from responsible parties. Send them to: https://reduceflooding.com/contact-us/.

Posted by Bob Rehak on March 27, 2022

1671 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.

Eight Bills Introduced in Texas Legislature This Year Affect Sand Mines

Yesterday was the last day for lawmakers to file bills for the 87th Texas legislative session. Eight bills have been introduced to curb abuses of aggregate production operations, which include sand mines. Five address reclamation of mines in various ways.

Huberty’s HB4478: Reclamation and Performance Bonds

Dan Huberty from the Lake Houston Area introduced HB4478 which addresses abandonment of sand mines. Many miners simply walk away from mines leaving abandoned, rusting equipment in place and dangerous conditions. Huberty’s bill would require mines to file a reclamation plan before they start mining and also post a bond ensuring they actually execute the plan. Currently, mines are required to file a plan, but there is no requirement in Texas to execute it. Miners can simply walk away from mines after they extract the last ounce of sand. That can leave scars on the landscape, degrade water quality, and threaten public safety.

Huberty’s HB767: Best Practices

Huberty also introduced HB767, a bill that would require the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to establish and publish best management practices for sand mining. However, it does not require sand mines to follow the practices. While that’s disappointing, it could bring heat to operations that don’t follow the guidelines.

Biederman’s HB4341: Changes Responsibility for Oversight

Representative Kyle Biederman from Fredericksburg introduced HB4341, a bill that would transfer regulation of aggregate production operations from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to the Texas Railroad Commission (TRRC). The bill gives the Railroad Commission the right to conduct unannounced inspections to ensure compliance with water and air quality regulations. Biederman’s bill also mandates reclamation of mines, but includes more specifics than Huberty’s. Finally, it provides criminal penalties for people who knowingly and willfully violate conditions of their permits. The big news: transfer of oversight responsibility from the TCEQ to TRRC. If it passes, it will be a resounding vote of “no confidence” in the job that the TCEQ has been doing in regulating sand mines.

Zwiener’s HB2422: Limiting Location of Mines

Representative Erin Zwiener from Kyle introduced HB2422. Her bill applies to counties with a population of 500,000 or more. It would allow county commissioners to prohibit the construction or expansion of an aggregate production operation at a location less than one mile from a residence, school, place of worship, hospital, or land platted for residential development. The bill would also allow commissioners to establish conditions for the construction or expansion of mines elsewhere in the county.

Murr’s HB291: Reclamation and Performance Bonds

Representative Andrew Murr from Kerrville introduced HB291. It also focuses on reclamation of mines. It would require the grading of banks, revegetation, and removal of equipment upon completion of mining. The bill would also require operators to reclaim mines in stages as extraction activities on different parts cease. It would give miners a deadline for reclamation, too: six months. Finally, it would require a performance bond equal to $2,500 for each acre affected by extraction activities. Upon completion of reclamation activities, the TCEQ would release the performance bond. Cities and counties would have the right to waive the reclamation requirement if reclamation conflicts with proposed future uses of the land.

Abandoned dredge left at abandoned Texas Concrete Sand & Gravel Mine in Plum Grove on San Jacinto East Fork. Photographed 3/3/2021

Guillen’s HB1544: APO Taxation

Representative Ryan Guillen from Rio Grande City introduced HB1544. It addresses the tax classification of land used for sand mining. The language is confusing and an analysis of the bill has not yet been submitted. However, it appears to state that sand mine, once it meets requirements for reclamation, may revert to a property tax rate associated with open space, such as agriculture. The bill lays out some unique requirements for reclamation not discussed in the other bills here. While this seems to give sand miners a positive incentive to restore land, I’m not sure how much. In Montgomery County, the tax appraiser routinely grants ag exemptions to land used for sand mining.

Wilson/Schwertner’s HB1912/SB1209: Permit Requirements

HB1912 filed by Representative Terry Wilson of Georgetown establishes additional permit requirements for aggregate production operations. They affect air quality, light pollution, noise, blasting, dust, and other operational issues identified by the House Interim Committee on APOs back in January.

State Senator Charles Schwertner from Bryan introduced SB1209. It is an identical companion bill to HB1912. Companion bills increase the chance of passage by broadening the base of support in both houses.

During the 86th Legislature in 2019, TACA beat back all reasonable attempts to regulate sand mining. Let’s hope for the sake of everyone’s health and property values that this session has more success. I will keep you posted.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/13/2021

1292 Days since Hurricane Harvey

House Committee Releases Report on Sand Mining

A House Interim Committee on Aggregate Production Operations (APOs, which include sand mining) just released a 77-page report focusing on the Hill Country and San Jacinto River Basin. The report validates many of the concerns ReduceFlooding.com has raised about sand mining for years.

One of multiple breaches at the Triple PG mine in Porter left open for months until the Attorney General sued the mine.

Purpose: To Balance Priorities While Addressing Concerns

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen created the committee to help balance public protection, regulation and economic growth. Bonnen tasked the Committee with reviewing complaints about APOs and making recommendations to the 87th Texas Legislature. Issues include:

  1. Nuisance issues relating to noise and light
  2. Transportation safety and road repairs
  3. Air quality
  4. Blasting
  5. Reclamation
  6. Distance from adjoining properties
  7. Disruption of groundwater
  8. Water quality
  9. Sedimentation and flooding
  10. Municipal ordinances.

The report begins with a description of the balancing act regulators face. Sand and gravel used in concrete support economic growth. But they also impact surrounding property values, impact the health of neighbors, and lower quality of life when they cut corners and operate outside of industry best practices to lower production costs.

A number of bills in the last legislative session sought to resolve these conflicts and many, such as “best practices” will be reintroduced during the session which started this month. Pages 7-10 describe the legislation attempted in the last session.

Below, I summarize each issue listed above in order.

Noise Pollution

The main sources of noise from APOs come from the machinery used to move earth, process raw material and move product. Blasting is also a major consideration in the Hill Country.

The U.S. Mining Health and Safety Administration (MSHA) characterizes noise and one of the most pervasive health hazards in mining. Prolonged exposure to hazardous sound levels over a period of years can cause permanent, irreversible damage to hearing. Hearing loss may occur rapidly under prolonged exposure to high sound levels, or gradually when levels are lower and exposures less frequent.

Ways to reduce noise from moving equipment include use of strobes, alarms, camera systems and motion sensors that can trigger backup beepers as needed.

To mitigate noise from processing equipment, the report suggests chute liners and screens made of rubber or urethane to dampen the sound of the rock hitting the sides of the conveyors. Acoustical enclosures such as walls, berms and natural vegetation can also help protect neighbors.

APOs should monitor the noise exposure at their property line, keeping the noise level at their property line below 65 dB if the property line is within 880 yards of a residential area, school, or house of worship, and 70 dB if not.

Report Recommendation

Light Pollution

APOs create light pollution when the dust they generate scatters light and creates haze. Those that operate at night may require light for safety that keeps neighbors up.

APOs should be held to IDA and IES standards for outdoor industrial lighting, and fined when they don’t.

Report Recommendation

These standards provide operator safety yet shield neighbors from the most annoying effects of light pollution.

Transportation

The high volume of heavy trucks used to move product creates traffic safety issues near APOs and damages roads. TxDOT allows APOs to build 90-degree driveways. These are less expensive, but more dangerous than acceleration and deceleration lanes which provide massive safety benefits.

Dust and small rocks coming off of trucks cause windshield damage and obscure vision of nearby drivers. Placement of roadway bumps leading up to acceleration lanes would help shake off the dust and smaller rocks from the trucks before they make their way onto the highway.

Studies have also shown that the level of damage to the integrity of roads by heavy commercial vehicles far outpaces the funding they contribute through gas taxes. Such vehicles pay $.03 per mile, but cost $.26 per mile.

Recommendations:

  • Change TxDOT protocols to allow for an agreed upon change to a driveway should traffic conditions change.
  • Require that new APOs have enough right of way purchased to construct acceleration or decelerations lanes.
  • Commission a study to establish a Pricing Model for Pavement

Air Quality

Suffice it to say that the health risks of breathing APO dust are voluminous.

Short-term exposure can result in coughing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest and irritation of the eyes.

Long-term exposure can result in reduced lung function, and respiratory diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, emphysema, impairment of brain development, low birth weight, lung cancer, stroke, aggravation of existing lung disease, and death.

OSHA, MSHA and other agencies responsible for worker health continue to reduce allowable exposure levels for labor; these same reduced exposure levels should be applied to the general population as well, says the report.

Testimony from those living near APOs who have been affected by the decline in air quality demonstrates that regular regional air-quality monitoring is insufficient. So, TCEQ does not know what the actual, real-time particulate concentrations are in the air near APOs.

Recommendations:
  • Require APOs to set up onsite monitoring.
  • Commission a study to determine cumulative effects of adjacent mines, each outputting a compliant level.
  • Modify the TCEQ permitting process to include county commissioners, municipal authorities and others.

Blasting

This is a bigger problem in the Hill County than Houston. So I will skip it here.

Reclamation

APO’s can suddenly cease operation for a number of reasons: bankruptcy, depleted assets, decline in demand, etc. While sites can never be returned to their original condition, they CAN be restored for safe, alternative uses.

At a minimum, this means removing hazardous materials and industrial equipment, and sloping walls to avoid leaving dangerous collapses.

Recommendations:
  • Require APO to file a reclamation/restoration plan.
  • Require operators to post a Surety Bond to cover all reclamation costs in the event the operator fails to reclaim disturbed lands.
  • Address all potential future safety and environmental problems (fugitive dust, erosion, etc.) in reclamation plans.

Distance from Adjoining Property

Current regulations depend on the type of facility and the type of equipment in use. This makes regulations complex and difficult to interpret.

Recommendations:
  • Revise permits to define setbacks by the distance from the APO property line rather than the specific piece of equipment.
  • Require a setback of 880 yards for concrete batch plants.
  • Establish setback rules for all APOs that treat platted subdivisions as residential areas.

Groundwater Disruption

The committee found inconsistent groundwater conservation rules around the state. Many counties did not even have Groundwater Conservation Districts, or if they did, they could not assess the cumulative regional impact of APOs on water supply. Historic APO water use data is not readily available to the public.

Recommendations:
  • The Texas Water Development Board should complete an in-depth assessment of APO water use.
  • Study future water supply, especially for the Houston area, where sedimentation threatens Lake Houston.
  • Require APOs to recirculate groundwater to conserve groundwater resources.

Water Quality

The committee found that TCEQ regulations for APOs are less rigorous than for other types of surface mining enforced by the Railroad Commission.

APOs construct ponds based on their preferred ‘best management practice,’ often without rigorous engineering or regulatory inspection. Testimony from neighbors indicated sediment-laden discharge damaged property. TCEQ found that nearly half (42%) of APO enforcement actions (not related to registration) were due to noncompliance with water-quality rules.

Groundwater pollution by APOs is also a legitimate concern.

Recommendations:
  • Require Texas APOs to comply with requirements for Texas coal and uranium mines.
  • Improve rules and regulatory processes to provide a higher level of protection from pollution by APOs.
  • Provide more robust and frequent groundwater inspections.
  • Perform dye-trace studies to determine groundwater flow-paths in areas close to major water wells.

Sedimentation and Flooding

The committee found sand mining along the San Jacinto River to be one of the contributors of excess sedimentation. It also aggravated flooding issues in Montgomery and Harris Counties during and after Hurricane Harvey.

Also, “The result of partitioning large areas of the floodway from rising floodwaters by levees and dikes can result in increased flooding of adjacent areas. Flood-induced breaches in levees can also add to the problems of flooding and sedimentation downstream.”

Unfortunately, breaches and unauthorized discharges are sometimes left unreported and unrepaired unless citizens file reports to the TCEQ. Even when violations have been documented by the TCEQ, fines have been minimal, averaging ~$800/violation from 2013-2017. Worse, the TCEQ inspects mines only once every two years for the first six years, and then once every three years thereafter.

The committee also found that in-river mining has continued along the West Fork of the San Jacinto even though no permits have been granted by TPWD. TPWD enforcement appears to be lax. “Thus, it is likely regulations will have little or no effect on in-river mining.”

Recommendations:

Municipal Ordinances

The report found that municipalities (as opposed to counties) already have the power to require minimum buffers in Public Health and Safety requirements and nuisance abatement ordinances. The committee specifically cited the City of Houston. But much mining remains outside of municipalities. So it recommended granting authority to counties to establish setbacks between incompatible land uses and to regulate water wells to avoid possible groundwater contamination.

Lack of Industry Cooperation

This report began by acknowledging the need for balance. However, it ended by complaining about the lack of industry cooperation.

For instance, TACA claimed that pushing facilities father from where products are needed will “add a tremendous amount of cost.” When the committee tried to investigate such economic claims, TACA refused to document them. The committee then reached out to trade groups in other states to substantiate TACA’s claims. However, all those groups refused to respond or simply ignored the requests.

That led to one final recommendation. Should concerns about the potential economic consequences become substantiated by reputable data, the legislature should institute a “Best Practices Compliance Incentive Program.”

It would require TCEQ to certify that all APOs trying to do business with the state comply with industry best practices.

To read the entire report, click here.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/26/2021

1246 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.

Action Alert: Aggregate Production Testimony Needed

Deadline 5pm today, Friday, 9/25: We need you!

Please sign up to speak at an ONLINE/VIRTUAL town hall meeting about sand mines and/or other aggregate production operations (APOs). The meeting will be Thursday, 10/1 for the House Interim Committee on Aggregate Production Operations. Please send an email to both jeff.frazier_hc@house.texas.gov and jeff.frazier@house.texas.gov stating your name, contact info, and your request to speak at the 10/1 town hall.

Probably not everyone will be called on to speak, but we want the committee to know that this affects vast numbers of people. It’s CRITICAL to communicate how many of us are negatively affected by existing and planned sand mines, quarries, concrete plants, and other APOs.

All of the House Interim Committee members will be present and this will be similar to speaking in front of the committee at the Capitol in Austin–but online.

Speakers will also come from the Hill County where APOs are severely impacting quality of life.

Examples of Problems in Lake Houston Area

Mouth bar on the West Fork San Jacinto that mostly formed during Hurricane Harvey. It backed up water and contributed to flooding thousands of homes and businesses. Much of the sediment came from 20 square miles of sand mines immediately upstream. Cleanup cost to state and federal governments so far: about $150 million.
The day the West Fork (right) ran white after the LMI Mine upstream put 56 million gallons of process wastewater into the drinking water for 2 million people (Source: TCEQ).
Breach at Triple PG mine one White Oak Creek emitted process wastewater into headwaters of Lake Houston, the source of drinking water for 2 million people. Attorney General is suing mine for approximately $1 million.
Concentrated silt after sand is washed. Exposed in floodway of the San Jacinto West Fork.
River mining without a permit at the Spring Wet Sand and Gravel Plant on the west fork.

Speak for Up to 3 Minutes

Be prepared to speak for up to three minutes about how YOU personally have been or will be impacted by quarries, concrete batch plants, or asphalt plants. Pick one or two of these key issues that most affect you personally:

???? Air particulate emissions
???? Water use and availability
???? Water pollution and flooding
???? Rapid development of APOs without adequate regulatory oversight, mine planning, or reclamation
???? Truck traffic
???? Nuisance issues: blasting, noise, odor, light trespass, visible blight
???? Economic impacts, devaluation of property

URGENT: DO TODAY BEFORE 5pm

Just send in an email requesting to speak. You’ll have a week to plan and prep. Thanks for helping protect our families and community!

If possible, it is VERY IMPORTANT to speak at this meeting. However, if you aren’t selected to speak, or you don’t get your request submitted in time, there will be an additional opportunity later this month to submit written testimonial. We’ll send more info on this in the upcoming days and weeks.

SEND EMAIL

Posted by Bob Rehak on 9/25/2020

1123 Days since Hurricane Harvey

In Support of HB 907: Doubling Fines for Unregistered Sand Mining

After Hurricane Harvey, I saw mountains of sand everywhere I looked near the San Jacinto River. Since then, I have been studying the origins of the sand and am convinced that part of it comes from bootleg sand mining operations upstream that have destabilized river banks.

Forest Cove Townhomes destroyed by Harvey and swallowed by sand. In places, sand reaches into the treetops.

Bootleg Operators Destabilize River Banks

You don’t have to look long or hard to find examples of bootleg operators; they’re clearly visible in satellite images. As you examine an area in Google Earth and scroll back through time, look for operations that pop up suddenly and disappear just as fast. Concentrate on point bars and areas hidden in woods near rivers.

High Cost of Dredging

It’s costing taxpayers $70 million to restore the conveyance of the San Jacinto River; that’s the cost of the US Army Corps of Engineer’s dredging program. And that’s only for a PORTION of the area that needs dredging.

HB 907 DOUBLES the penalties (both daily and total) for failure to register an APO. It’s simple and straightforward. It targets bootleg operators who take a dump truck and a back hoe to the river and start scooping sand out of point bars. BTW, that’s stealing public property.

In the process, they kill trees and riparian vegetation that stabilize river banks. Results: erosion, excess sedimentation and scars that can last for decades. 

I’m not aware of any responsible parties opposing this legislation. And it doesn’t impose any hardships on honest people.

It does, however, put APOs on the radar of oversight agencies, so the agencies can better enforce environmental laws and regulations.

HB 907 Won’t Solve Sedimentation Problems but Will Help

PLEASE SUPPORT HB 907. It won’t solve all the sedimentation problems on the San Jacinto, but it will definitely help.

The House Environmental Regulation committee is hearing testimony on the bill today. Let’s hope this one makes it out of committee.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/17/2019

596 Days since Hurricane Harvey