On March 24, Montgomery County Commissioners approved a resolution that allowed the County Attorney to sue a new Carriage Hills sand mine operating on the West Fork of the San Jacinto. The text of the lawsuit was vague as to actual violations. But on Monday, March 30, B.D. Griffin, the Montgomery County Attorney supplied more details about the complaint. He also discussed the status of the suit, what the mine is doing, and likely long-term outcomes.
Operator Violated Floodplain Permit
According to Griffin, counties in Texas have few tools to regulate land use. However, floodplain regulations are one of them. Montgomery County alleges that the Carriage Hills sand mine operator, Skilled International, was in violation of the floodplain permit issued to MBM Sand Company, the landowner.
Griffin says there were two main issues. First, MBM obtained the permit, but it was not transferrable to Skilled. Second, Skilled is operating in the floodway of the San Jacinto West Fork. The MBM permit allowed floodplain operations, but not floodway.
Therefore, according to Griffin, they operated where they should not have. Floodway operations are subject to more regulations and more stringent regulations than floodplain operations. “They were operating outside the boundaries of their permit,” said Griffin. “That’s why we sought the authority to file suit against them. They were in violation of their floodplain permit.”
Mine Closes Voluntarily Until It Gets Proper Permit
The County, however, did not actually have to file the suit against the Carriage Hills sand mine. “They have complied voluntarily and shut down the sand pit operations until they get their approvals to operate in the special flood hazard area,” said Griffin.
He further stated that, “If you fail to enforce your regulations, then you jeopardize the county’s participation in the national flood insurance program. That’s major. But we try to enforce the regulations anyway because it’s the right thing to do. We’re not after fines necessarily, but we do have that ability if necessary.”
“The operator also told us in writing that they will cease operations until they get the proper permits,” said Griffin. Three officials from Montgomery County checked and found that the mine has, in fact, ceased operations.
What Mine Must Do to Comply
“Basically, they need to show where they are operating. If it’s in the floodway, there are more regulation than if they are just in the flood plain. They need to show that they’re not increasing the base flood elevation and that there are no adverse impacts to adjoining properties. AND they have to have it all certified by engineers in order to get their permit.”
That means the engineer will need to conduct an H&H (Hydrologic and Hydraulic) study for the floodway portion of the mine’s permit. “They need that to show that they won’t raise the base flood elevation and that they won’t adversely impact adjoining properties.”
Truck Traffic Will Likely Return When Permits Obtained
While the threat of a County suit has eliminated all the truck traffic through Carriage Hills for now, in the long run, things may not change much. Griffin says, “You have to understand. Land use regulation by a county is fairly limited in Texas. We don’t have the powers of a municipality and we don’t have the powers of the State.”
Griffin continued, “So, we can only regulate land use with very limited means. One of those is floodplain regulations. The other is subdivision regulations. So, what we look to and require, is often not the same as what an adjoining landowner may want.”
“We want compliance with our permitting process and with the actual regulations themselves. The Carriage Hills sand mine can’t increase water on adjoining property and they can’t raise the base flood elevation. Those are the two big ones,” said Griffin.
Regarding the heavy truck traffic on residential roads, Griffin says, “It’s a public road. Unfortunately, we can’t do much. The state can issue overload permits and they have the right to run on our roads. We can’t do anything about it. There’s a limit as to what the county can do. And, you know, we are in a fast-growing county. As population density increases, we can get more of these problems. There’s not always a win-win solution. But if we take some actions like this, it makes people think about being good corporate neighbors.”
Threat of County Lawsuit Remains
Skilled International, the mine’s operator has not given a timetable for compliance yet. But Griffin says they have hired a consultant who is working directly with the County Engineers office. In the meantime, they have agreed to suspend operations until they get their proper permits.
Says Griffin, “We have the lawsuit prepared to be filed. As long as they cease operations, we won’t file a lawsuit. If we see them starting up the operations again and there’s no permit, we will file the suit.”
The complaint approved by Commissioners required remediation for any dirt Skilled International may have brought into the Carriage Hills sand mine. Griffin says, “If they ultimately do NOT get a permit, we will require them to remove anything they may have brought into the floodway.”
This could prove substantial. New draft FEMA floodplain maps show the floodway has expanded. The new floodway now takes in the vast majority of the area being mined.
It is unclear whether the County Engineer and Attorney will apply the new floodplain map when considering the mine’s permit or use the old map.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/31/2020
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