Posts

“Sand Mines Destroyed Our Lives”

Randy Reagan is tough. He grew up in the Conroe oil fields and riding bulls. But nothing prepared him for flooding five times in four years and the series of events that followed.

Reagan raised his family on a 5-acre lot in Bennett Estates. That’s a neighborhood between the San Jacinto West Fork and FM1314, just south of SH242. He made a modest living for himself as an oil-field technician by repairing turbines, first for a local company and then for GE. He harvested all the meat his family ate from his own property and the surrounding forests. Life was good.

Built Home Above 1994 High Water Mark

Bennett Estates rises up from the banks of the San Jacinto West Fork through the 100- and 500-year flood plains to even higher ground. Reagan’s slab is a foot above the high-water mark from the 1994 flood, which at the time involved a massive release from the Lake Conroe dam. So he figured he was safe for anything the future brought. Wrong!

Reagan lives between the sand mines east of the river, just above the mine at the bottom, in the aqua-colored 100-year flood plain. Source: FEMA.

A Happy Life, Until…

While Reagan was never destined for riches, he led a happy life. Until the sand mines came. Then everything changed.

Reagan now lives in a neighborhood five blocks deep – sandwiched between three sand mines comprising almost 1500 acres.

Despite being in the 100-year flood plain, his property has only flooded twice from the San Jacinto – in 1994 and 2017 during Harvey. However, in the last four years, he says, it has also flooded four times from sand mines – twice in 2016, once in 2018 and once in 2019 during Imelda.

As the sand mines have grown, they’ve removed forests and wetlands that used to slow water down during rainfalls.

Now the water rushes through sand pits largely unimpeded. While the mines like to tout how they offer detention capacity in storms, aerial photos show that they offer little. That’s because they are often filled to the brim…even before storms. So, it doesn’t take much to make them overflow in heavy rains. 

Water level in LMI Pit to south of Reagan. Photo taken 2/13/2020 during a mild drought shows little room for more water. This is the mine cited by the TCEQ for discharging 56 million gallons of white gunk into the West Fork last year.

Water flows down into the mines from higher ground and quickly fills the pits. The pits can then spill over into the river and surrounding neighborhoods.

LMI Pit to the North Sends Water South into Neighborhood

That’s what Reagan contends happened with the LMI pit to the north of him. 

  • During Harvey, a satellite photo in Google Earth shows the water blew out the mine’s perimeter road, sending water gushing into Reagan’s neighborhood. 
  • During other recent events, Reagan has ground-level photos that show silty, sandy-brown water coming from the direction of the mine, not the river. 
LMI breach into Reagan neighborhood on 8/30/2017 during Harvey. Five HVL pipelines are now trying to repair damage caused when this mine mined too close to them.
The LMI mine to the north of Reagan on Feb. 13, 2020. In heavy rains, there’s little to keep water from the mine from escaping into Reagan’s neighborhood out of frame at the bottom of the photo. Photo taken in moderate drought conditions.

Hanson Pit to South Backs Water Up into Neighborhood

The mine to the south of Reagan affects him in a different way. Twice, says Reagan, the mine has built walls that blocked the flow of ephemeral streams that used to run through his neighborhood.

The mine dug a ditch to the river in 2011 to let the water drain to the river. That worked for about five years. Then the ditch became overgrown and the volume of water coming from the northern mine became too much. Reagan flooded on Tax Day and Memorial Day in 2016, 2018, and Imelda in 2019. Not to mention the 93 inches he got during Harvey in 2017.

Dirt wall erected by Hanson Aggregates between their pond and Reagan’s property. The drainage ditch in the foreground that they dug in 2011 is no longer any match for water flowing south from the LMI mine behind the camera position.

Problems Grow as Sand Mines Grow

“The sand mines have destroyed our lives,” said Reagan. “We’ve lived here all our lives. This all used to be woods for acres and acres and acres. The first problem I had was back in the 90’s when the sand pits were getting bigger.”

“As they started developing more ponds, they started interrupting the natural runoff.”

Randy Reagan

“When we moved here in the late ’90’s, we had our homesite raised four feet. That’s where FEMA drew the line for insurance at the time. We figured if we built higher than the high water mark from 1994, we would never have to worry. Because in 1994, we had Lake Conroe releasing all that water on us.”

“There was another flood in 1998, but it never affected us. We were high and dry here. LMI still had not built the mine to the north of us at that point,” said Reagan. 

“Now we’ve got water coming at us up from the river, downhill from one mine and backing up from another mine. Sand from the mines even blocks the street drains that lead to the river,” said Reagan.

“All this used to be woods back here with natural creeks and natural drainage. It’s just all gone now. These sand pits done tore it out,” said Reagan. “They’re like giant lakes with no water control.”

Memorial Day Flood in 2016 invades Reagan’s shop.
Memorial Day Flood in 2016 nearly invades Reagan’s home. Note color of water. 93″ of floodwater took this home in Harvey one year later.

“In 2016, we got a lot of rain, but the river never got out of its banks much,” he continued. “The people that live next to LMI (on the north) tell me that the LMI walls keep breaking. The water rushes through their property, coming from the sand pit. In 2016, we had milky brown, silty water sweeping through here. It was so swift that it almost took my truck off the road. I got about 20 inches in my garage during Tax Day and Memorial Day storms. But it never got in my home at that point.”

“The Tax Day Flood in 2016 was our wedding anniversary. We tried to celebrate our anniversary while our garage got flooded. That was LMI. And then we got flooded again on Memorial Day. That was LMI,” said Reagan. “In 2016, the river here was NOT out of its banks. We got flooded from the sand pits.” 

“Then came Harvey. We might have been fine if all we got was the rainwater. It came close. But then they opened the gates at Lake Conroe. And the sand mine upstream of us broke loose again.

Floods Cause Cascading Series of Problems

“Not only did we lose our house, I lost my job and I lost my health. We really hit bottom.” 

“I’ve got breathing problems,” says Reagan. “Everybody in our family has breathing problems.” 

“I was still trying to recover from Harvey, the day I lost my job in 2018. I was admitted into the emergency room because of my breathing that same day.” 

“In the meantime, we were living in a used camper. And it caught on fire. We didn’t have insurance on it,” said Reagan. “My mother had just died. So we were going through that grieving process. Then the camper burns!”

Never-Ending Noise and Vacant Homes

“It used to be quiet here,” he says. “The sand trucks used to run during the days, but never on weekends and never at night. Now they run 24/7 it seems.”

The sand mines and floods took more than Reagan’s health and home. When long-time residents fled to higher ground, they left behind vacant houses. He worries about a criminal element coming in now.

During Harvey, Reagan says water reached 93 inches in his shop. That’s above the door frame.
Reagan yard during Imelda. Note color of water…again.

 “We’re living in my shop now. Everything we have left is in there.” 

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/3/2020

917 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 166 since Imelda

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.