Tag Archive for: breach

Giant Leak at Hallett Mine…Again

On December 22, I received an email from a Montgomery County resident named Jody Binnion. He lives near the Hallett sand mine on the San Jacinto West Fork and can see the mine from his home. Binnion said that the level of a 170-acre pond had dropped at least 2-3 feet and maybe more – overnight. He went to investigate and found a giant repair at a corner of the pit near the West Fork. Hallett had already patched the breach, he said.

Photo Courtesy of Jody Binnion, 12/22/2020 at 9:56 am. Looking toward 170 acre Hallett pond that dropped several feet.

Here’s what the patched area looked like from the air ten days later on January 1, 2021.

Looking SE toward the West Fork and US59. The West Fork arcs through the frame on the right.

By the time I shot the scene above from the air, the pond had virtually refilled – either with process water, rainwater, or both.

It’s hard to say with certainty whether this breach was intentional. Binnion arrived after the hole had already been plugged. The TCEQ says it has opened an investigation.

History of Breach

The area had leaked several times before, starting in 2015 according to Google Earth imagery. But the leaks were all relatively minor. The forest between the pond and the river even survived Harvey.

But then, in early February of 2019, Binnion noticed a radical drop in the level of the pond for the first time. Binnion photographed the breach and reported it to TCEQ, but never heard back from the Commission. A Google Earth image taken a little more than 2 weeks later confirms that rapidly rushing water mowed down a 250-foot-wide swath of trees more than 600 feet long. Google Earth also shows fresh repairs in the area. See below.

The trees between the upper pond and the river survived Harvey, but were destroyed sometime the week of February 4, 2019. Note repairs to breach when this photo was taken on 2/23/2019.

The Harris County Flood Warning System shows that the HCFCD gage at US59 and the West Fork recorded only about a quarter inch of rain during that week (February 4, 2019).

A quarter inch of rain in a week makes a storm-induced breach unlikely.

Between 2/2/2019 and 2/8/2019, the gage at 59 and the West Fork registered only about a quarter inch of rain. Only an eighth of an inch fell before the breach.

Ironically, that week I was meeting with TACA, Hallett, other sand miners, the TCEQ, State Rep. Dan Huberty, and Lake Houston Area leaders in Austin that week. It was about greater setbacks from the river for sand mines! But I question whether setback was the issue in this case.

Area Started to Regrow

When I photographed the area on September 2020, vegetation was growing back in.

Photo taken 9/11/2020. Looking toward Hallett’s pit (the white one) with West Fork in foreground.

Aerial Photos of Latest Breach

But then on Jan. 1, 2021, I flew over the area again. This time, I saw – from the air – the blowout that Binnion photographed ten days earlier from the ground. See the pictures below.

Latest breach. Looking SE. Pit on left, West Fork on right. Pond in upper middle is an abandoned mine.
Reverse angle. Looking NW, back toward Hallett Mine on upper level. River is behind helicopter.

It’s unclear whether all of this happened at once. It rained 1.04 inches in the week before Binnion photographed the breach just before Christmas. It rained another 1.44 inches in the two days before January 1. I took the aerial photos above on New Year’s Day, with the exception of the one taken last September.

Excess Sedimentation Can Lead to Flooding

Sedimentation from sand mines, along with natural erosion, has been linked to flooding in the Humble/Kingwood corridor where the West Fork lost much of its conveyance capacity after Harvey. It has cost taxpayers more than $100 million so far to remove the excess sediment. The dredging program continues after more than 3 years.

This sandbar formed on the West Fork of the San Jacinto during Harvey. The Army Corps of Engineers says it blocked the river by 90%. Note how shallow the river was in the areas where water was getting through. This picture was taken two weeks after Harvey. The Corps has since removed the bar as part of a larger effort to restore West Fork conveyance.

If we are ever to reduce the sedimentation problem, we must first get past the fiction that sand mines are not contributing to it. Hallett isn’t the only mine with these issues. The West Fork San Jacinto has 20 square miles of sand mines between I-45 and US59. I have photographed leaks at all but one of them during the last three years, including the New Year’s Day flight.

The photo below shows the confluence of the West Fork and Spring Creek at US59. Guess which way the sand mines are?

West Fork comes from the top of the frame and Spring Creek from the left. Water flows toward the right. Photo 1/1/2021.

This confluence looks this way most months, but not all.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/7/2021

1227 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.

Liberty Materials Sand Mine Built in Floodway, Floodplains, But Flooding Not Likely Cause of Breach

A Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) investigation into the mysterious white water on the West Fork, focused on sand mining upstream. TCEQ cited Liberty Materials for allegedly discharging 56 million gallons of milky-white water into the West Fork.

The mine’s manager said he “didn’t have a clue” about when, why, or how one of the mine’s pits lost 4 feet of water. A water sample showed nearly 25 times the normal amount of dissolved solids.

West Fork on November 4, 2019. It angles from left to right. Spring Creek, by contrast comes from top to bottom.
Color of the water on November 4, 2019 on the West Fork San Jacinto, about a half mile upstream from US59.

The Liberty Materials mine, like virtually all of the mines on the West Fork, sits in the floodway and floodplain. It’s a mile and a half wide and almost three miles long. About a 1000 acres altogether.

San Jacinto West Fork is white ribbon cutting diagonally through image. Floodway = Cross-hatched area. 100-Year Flood Plain = aqua. 500-Year Flood Plain = Brown. Source: FEMA’s national flood hazard layer viewer.

That’s a lot of sand and sediment exposed to the ravages of floodwater.

But the irony in this case is that there was no flood immediately before the breaches.

The gage at State Highway 242 near the Liberty mine shows 2.4 inches of rain during a 3 day period starting six days before the white-water incident.

Rainfall at SH242 and San Jacinto West Form from October 27 through November 3, 2019. Source: HarrisCountyFWS.org.
Late October rainfall caused the West Fork to rise about 3 feet, but the river had another 18 feet to rise before flooding.

That amount of rainfall caused the river to rise about 3 feet. But it was still 18 feet away from flooding!

Alternative Breach Scenarios

So if flooding didn’t do it, how did the water get out of the mine? One possibility is that the terrain funneled rainwater into the pond and caused it to overflow. The overflow then started a fissure which widened into the Grand Canyon of the West Fork.

Several mining engineers suggested other alternative scenarios:

  • Industrial sabotage by a disgruntled employee
  • Liquefaction of the sand around the perimeter of pits as they filled with rainwater
  • A heavy truck driving over sand about to liquify
  • They needed to clean out the pond and intentionally lowered the level
  • Needed purer water to create acceptable frack sand
  • “The Boss Made Me Do It”, possibly related to one of the two points above

I’m not saying there was a deliberate breach, but we’ve seen it happen before.

“Dunno What Happened!”

The mine manager interviewed by the TCEQ claims he doesn’t know when, why, or how the breach happened. Yet it caused a four-foot drop in the level of a major pond for more than a week.

To paraphrase the famous quote from Hamlet, “Methinks, the man professes ignorance too much.” By that I mean, the denials cause him to lose credibility. If your swimming pool suddenly dropped four feet, wouldn’t you want to know the cause?

His responses hint that something else is going on here. We may never know what. Despite tens of millions of gallons of pollution being poured into the West Fork, these cases rarely go to trial.

All the more reason to establish greater setbacks from rivers for sand mines.

The state legislature needs to make it more difficult for “accidents” like these to happen.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/2/2019

825 Days after Hurricane Harvey

TCEQ Observes Triple-PG Sand Mine Discharging Wastewater Directly into Tributary of Lake Houston

On May 18, Josh Alberson and I gave Tony Buzbee a tour of sediment and sand mining issues on the San Jacinto River. Buzbee is a candidate for Mayor of Houston and got to witness first hand some of the problems I have been talking about for almost two years now. On Caney Creek, we stumbled across a giant breach in the dike of the Triple-PG mine in Porter. We reported it immediately to the TCEQ.

Massive breach in dike between Triple PG Mine and Caney Creek, May, 2019

Two-Week Discharge

Investigators actually observed the unauthorized discharge of process water from the mine into the City’s drinking water supply. It continued for approximately two weeks.

Not One, But Two Massive Breaches

The TCEQ found not one, but two breaches. The first was on the southwest side of the mine. Water entered the mine from a breach of the dike near White Oak Creek. The water then swept through the mine and exited through a second breach on Caney Creek. That meant the two creeks were actually flushing process water out of the mine into the drinking water supply for two million people.

The TCEQ finished its investigation in July and cited the operation for failing to prevent the unauthorized discharge of process water. The TCEQ told them to repair and widen their dikes. They did. Case closed.

Classic Example of Pit Capture

The breeches appear to be the result of heavy rains in early May. This is a prime example of pit capture. High pressure in the floodway causes dike failure. The river or stream then flows through the mine and breaks out the opposite side. The same thing happened during Harvey when floodwaters carried away a large part of the mine’s stockpile.

Repeated Violations

This same mine has been investigated five times in five years by the TCEQ for various problems detailed in this report. The mine is owned by a cardiologist from Nacogdoches named Guniganti. His family operates it.

The basic problem with this mine is its location. It sits at the confluence of two floodways. That’s why the dikes were blown out. That’s why Harvey’s floodwaters swept through it. Continuing to operate this mine is like flying a plane into conditions that you know are unsafe.

No Disincentive for Dangerous Business Practices

Yet there’s no disincentive for dangerous business practices. Investigators told the operators to fix the breaches. They did. Business will go on as usual. Until the next disaster.

As a society, why do we tolerate this?

We even seem to venerate it. How strange that one family’s profit outweighs the health and safety of millions! The legislature had an opportunity to fix this problem this year. However, one bill that would have established best practices for sand mining and another that would have established minimum setbacks from rivers for sand mines never made it out of committee. Likewise HB-908 proposed by State Representative Dan Huberty that would have provided meaningful financial penalties for such bad practices never made it out of committee.

Tax Breaks Instead of Penalties

This Guniganti family even gets tax breaks from Montgomery County. The appraisal district gives timber and agricultural exemptions to areas actively being mined. Go figure!

Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/23/2019

724 Days after Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent my opinions on matters of public interest and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP statute of the great State of Texas.

Buzbee Video Puts Mouth Bar, Sand Mining at Center Stage In Mayoral Election

Tony Buzbee and Bill King both understand the importance of Kingwood in the upcoming Mayoral election. In the 2015 runoff, Sylvester Turner won by 4,000 votes city wide. But more than 28,000 registered voters in Kingwood didn’t vote, largely because of a major storm on Election Day. Storms may again shape this election, but in a different way.

Slow Pace of Mitigation Creates Opening

Since Hurricane Harvey, identifying the causes of flooding in the Kingwood area and mitigating them have dominated public discourse. Now both candidates running against incumbent Mayor Sylvester Turner are courting Kingwood residents. We could be the swing vote in the next election. And the slow pace of mitigation since Harvey could give them the opening they seek. Especially after recent flooding in Elm Grove reignited waves of anxiety.

King has met with many area residents on numerous occasions for the last year. He has slogged through swamps and sand dunes with me on more than one occasion, trying to see first hand how the San Jacinto became clogged with sediment, in part, due to sand mines in the floodway.

Buzbee joined the race later, but didn’t waste time wading into the issues. He asked local activists to arrange a trip to the mouth bar and a sand mine for him. When we got to the mouth bar, the former marine captain literally sprang out of the boat and waded ashore like he was taking a beach at Normandy.

Buzbee Sees Firsthand the Breach of Sand Mine Dike

Upriver, at the sand mine, we saw a tangible example of a theoretical discussion I had been having with him for several months – a sand mine discharging silt and wastewater into the river. We discovered, by accident, a massive breach in the dike of the Triple-P mine in Porter.

As we turned a bend on Caney Creek, suddenly we realized we were no longer on the creek. We were in a channel that connected the creek to the Triple-P Mine in Porter.

About 50 to 100 feet of the dike had vanished. From the way trees laid down, it looked as though the wall of the mine had been blown outward by floodwaters.

Breach in dike. The tree laying down in the background at about a 10 degree angle is on Caney Creek which flows left to right in this shot.

Danger of Floodway Mining Comes to Life

Suddenly, all the tumblers clicked into place. Buzbee said, “So that’s what you’ve been talking about!” The danger of building mines in the floodway became apparent. It was what they call in science “The Aha Moment!” I could see him connecting thoughts that were previously unconnected, such as sand mine and mouth bar. He got it.

Luckily for Kingwood residents, a video crew was present when he got it. Here, on video, is Buzbee’s voyage of discovery.

Click here to see 2 minute and 50 second video.

An Open Offer to All Candidates

While I have tried to keep flood discussions apolitical, inevitably the solutions are political. Hence, I am wading into some uncharted waters. I told Buzbee and King the same thing I will tell any candidate for any office. I will help you understand the causes of flooding in this area and what we need to mitigate them. My hope is that by making this part of the political debate, the candidates will focus awareness on the problems that leads to solutions.

I also make this promise to all candidates – incumbents and challengers alike. People deserve to hear what you have to say about flooding. Send me your thoughts or videos and I will publish them.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/24/2019 with special thanks to Josh Alberson and his boat

633 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Earth Week Part 4: Slope of Sand Mine Dikes, Riparian Vegetation and Cost Offsets

Yesterday, I posted about how greater setbacks from rivers could improve safety for sand mines and downstream residents. Setbacks reduce the potential for erosion, sedimentation and consequent flooding. Here’s a related post that shows what happens when you try to build too close to rivers.

Note repairs to dike. I took this photo two weeks after Harvey.

First, understand that the closer you mine to the river, the steeper the slope of dikes must be. At a certain point, the slope becomes so steep that:

  • Grasses and trees can’t take root in it.
  • The loose soil becomes prone to erosion.
  • During floods, water in the river rises faster than in the pit.
  • It exerts pressure on the dike.
  • The dike can collapse through one of more of several mechanisms (piping, erosion, overtopping, sloughing, etc.)
  • The river invades the pit.
  • Depending on the depth of the pit, the volume of sediment in it, and the force of the flood, sediment could be carried downstream.

Another factor leading to dike collapse in the photo above is the road built on top of it. Running heavy equipment over the sandy soil causes it to compact and push outward. Vehicle traffic also keeps vegetation that could bind the soil from growing.

Accidents Waiting to Happen

It doesn’t take a Harvey-scale flood to breach these loose dikes. The unmemorable July 4th flood of last year breached the dike shown above.

Another flood on December 7th last year breached a dike in another sand mine downstream from the first one in three places!

Repairs to one of three dike breaches at a sand mine in Dec. 7 flood last year. Photo by Don Harbour Jr.

Here’s another breach at the same mine that hadn’t yet healed when I photographed it on September 28th last year.

Site of a breach in the dike of a sand mine. Note how the loss of vegetation has led to erosion and sloughing in the sandy soil.

When such breaches happen on both sides of a point bar, the river will “capture” the pit by rerouting through it – the shortest distance between two points.

West Fork sand mines on 8/30/17, one day after the peak from from Harvey

West Fork vs. East Fork and Value of Riparian Vegetation

Almost all of these problems could be solved by greater setbacks from rivers. That would retain more natural riparian vegetation and allow lower, more gradual slopes on dikes. It would also allow additional re-vegetation to take hold.

Shooting across the West Fork from on top of the dike shown in the first photo above. Note how loose the soil was in the foreground and how difficult it is to establish vegetation on the opposite shore in the middleground. Floods have torn away the erosion blankets trying to establish grass on the steep slopes.

Imagine 131,000 cubic feet per second ripping through a channel like this. That’s how much came down this portion of the West Fork at the peak of Harvey. It’s easy to see how the river could erode these dikes and invade the mines.

That’s why we need greater setbacks. It will allow more conveyance through the normal channel. And if we just leave native negation in place, it should help hold the dikes in place.

Now contrast the images above with this one taken on a portion of the East Fork where there are no sand mines.

Lush riparian vegetation and trees held the banks in place during Harvey.

Here’s another.

Offsetting Opportunity Costs with Conservation Easements

Mother Nature’s solution to sedimentation is free. If we could only just learn to respect the river and its flood plains. Yes, there would still be some sedimentation to deal with, but not nearly as much.

The loss of sand close to the river is an opportunity cost, not an out-of-pocket cost. Groups like the Bayou Land Conservancy can help offset some of that opportunity cost by providing income in exchange for conservation easements. I wish miners would explore this option more…for everyone’s benefit including theirs. It certainly might reduce their legal costs.

Posted by Bob Rehak on April 27, 2019

606 Days after Hurricane Harvey

Sand Mine Dike Breached 3 Times in 1 Week During Minor Flood

I’ve posted dozens of times about the dangers of mining in floodways. A local canoeist, Don Harbour, Jr., paddled down the West Fork of the San Jacinto twice during the last flood. He says he saw three breaches in one sand mine. The water was moving too fast to get pictures of all three, he says, but he did manage to get several shots. They eloquently illustrate the dangers of mining so close to the river.

Harbour, Jr. says he paddled by this mine on Saturday, December 8, and noticed water rushing into it.

River breaching into mine. Photo courtesy of Don Harbour, Jr.

The following Wednesday, December 12, he paddled down the river again and saw the reverse.

Sand mine sending sediment into river as flood went down. Photo courtesy of Don Harbour, Jr.

On that same trip, he photographed the owners frantically trying to plug the leaks in dangerous conditions.

Repairs to other breaches. Photo courtesy of Don Harbour, Jr.

Altogether, Harbour, Jr. says he saw three breaches in one mine in one week.

I have seen video of a fourth breach at the same mine last August. It appeared as though it was created with a backhoe. Six months later, the TCEQ says it is still investigating the August breach.

When Pro Business Means No Business,
It’s Time to Rethink Mining in Floodways

Breaches allow the escape of sand and silt. They contribute to the buildup of sediment dams in the river. Those then contribute to downstream flooding.

When a rain that averaged only 5 inches across the watershed breaches the dike of one mine three times in one week, it’s time to rethink mining in floodways.

Such dangerous business practices can reduce growth.

  • The growth rate in the Humble ISD this past year dropped from 6% to 1% due to flooding, in part, caused by sedimentation.
  • 44% of the businesses in the Lake Houston Chamber were damaged or destroyed during Harvey.
  • 100% of the businesses in Kingwood Town Center and Kings Harbor were damaged or destroyed.

Move Miners Back from River

We don’t want to drive miners out of state; we just need them to move out of the floodway.

We don’t allow unsafe vehicles on the road. Why do we allow unsafe mining on the river?

Here’s the dike of another mine farther upriver. I took this picture shortly after Harvey. But the same dike breached again during the July 4th flood this year.

Sand mines on the West Fork come right up to the river where floodwaters repeatedly breach dikes.

Texas is the only state that has no minimum setbacks of mines from rivers. In contrast, Alaska allows no mining within 1,000 feet of a public water source. Other states and countries establish erosion hazard zones taking into account factors such as:

Many geologists and engineers believe erosion hazard zones represent a safer approach to determining setbacks.

Posted by Bob Rehak on December 21, 2018

479 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Sand Mine Dike Remains Open for Years

In my last post, I talked about how certain sand mines on the San Jacinto could help reduce the rate of sedimentation in the river by following best management practices (BMPs) found in other areas. Those BMPs included:

  1. Locate mines outside of floodways.
  2. Establish performance bonds to cover the cost of cleanup.
  3. Increase the width of dikes.
  4. Decrease the slope of dikes.
  5. Control erosion with vegetation.
  6. Replant areas not actively being mined.
  7. Avoid clearing areas that will not soon be mined.
  8. Protect stockpiles from flooding.
  9. Mine only above the thalweg (deepest part of the river).
  10. Establish performance bonds to guarantee remediation of breaches and/or repurposing of mined areas once mining is complete

This Mine Missed 9 out of 10

The State of Texas does not require these BMPs for sand mines on the San Jacinto. But it should. Here’s a case study in what happens if you ignore these principles.

The wide shot below was taken in January of 2010. Notice the muddy brown area in the middle of the shot. Also notice the breach in the dike on the left hand side of the brown area and the stockpile right above it. Finally, notice that un-vegetated area in the point on the far left.

That’s where the original mined area was back in the 1980s. Whoever mined it at that point took sand directly from the river bank. Regardless, it was never replanted and the entire area remains vulnerable to erosion to this day.

That’s important because this mine, like all but one on the the West Fork, lies largely in the floodway. See the cross-hatched area below in the USGS flood hazard map.

As a result of being in the floodway, here’s what happened to it during Hurricane Harvey. Note multiple breaches in the dikes, the loss of the stockpile, and swirling floodwaters flowing through the mine from upper left to lower right. Finally note that Harvey inundated that original mined area that was not replanted.

This made me curious, so I reviewed the historical imagery for this location in Google Earth. Here’s the same mine in 2016. Same story. Just not quite as bad. They lost about a third of the stockpile. And nasty brown water flowed straight through the pits closest to the river.

Next, I zoomed in on the breach and scrolled back through time. It first showed up in 2006.

By early 2011, they were building roads out to the breach.

Here it is in late 2011. Note how the river below the breach has become clogged with sand.

In 2013, still wide open. Another flood. More sediment flushed downstream.

In 2014, still open!

In 2016, they’ve rebuilt the dike! But it’s skinny. Very vertical. Un-vegetated. And you can already see cracks and major signs of erosion developing in it.

Then along comes another flood at the end of the year.

And by the next day, most of the dike has been washed away.

By 2017, it was fixed again.

Then along came Harvey. And there it went again.

Spike the Dike

So how did this mine score overall? If you were applying these principles, it received an almost unperfect score.

  1. Locate mines outside of floodways.
  2. Establish performance bonds to cover the cost of cleanup.
  3. Increase the width of dikes.
  4. Decrease the slope of dikes.
  5. Control erosion with vegetation.
  6. Replant areas not actively being mined.
  7. Avoid clearing areas that will not soon be mined.
  8. Protect stockpiles from flooding.
  9. Mine only above the thalweg (deepest part of the river).
  10. Establish performance bonds to guarantee remediation of breaches and/or repurposing of mined areas once mining is complete

The breach first showed up in 2006 and was still open in 2014! Goin’ for the record! How much sand and sediment wound up downstream as a result?

No telling exactly. But whatever it was, they won’t be picking up the tab for the cleanup. You will be (Point #10)…which underscores the need for the State to adopt common sense guidelines like these. Perhaps if it had, we wouldn’t have had as much damage during Harvey.

As always, these are my opinions on a matter of public policy, protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP statutes of the great State of Texas.

Posted on August 3, 2018 by Bob Rehak

339 Days since Hurricane Harvey