Tag Archive for: breaches

Biden Changes Trump’s Changes to Water Regulations

The Associated Press reported on December 30, 2021, that the Biden administration had reversed Trump-era changes to water regulations, which themselves were changes to Obama regulations and other previous administrations. This is getting to be like a tennis match. “Advantage Downstream.”

The EPA regulations have changed numerous times over the years. Enforcement changes, too.

The problem: Changes affect both water quality downstream and land development upstream. That’s why the rules change so often. Competing interests! Public health and safety vs. economic expansion.

Rivers Before the EPA and Clean Water Act

About two thirds of Americans alive today had not yet been born when Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. So they have no memory of the event that helped give birth to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970.

The Cuyahoga River caught fire a total of 13 times dating back to 1868. It is still rated one of the most polluted rivers in America by almost every group that compiles lists. Photo: Cleveland State University Library.

Shortly after its founding, the EPA dispatched photographers all around the country to document environmental abuses.

The photographers took about 81,000 images, more than 20,000 of which were archived. At least 15,000 have been digitized by the National Archives. They form a time capsule showing the way things were.

Warning: These images are disturbing…for people on both sides of the political net.

Why the Changes This Time?

The AP article by Jim Salter and Michael Phillis says, “The Trump-era rule, finalized in 2020, was long sought by builders, oil and gas developers, farmers and others who complained about federal overreach that they said stretched into gullies, creeks and ravines on farmland and other private property.”

However, the writers continued, “…the Trump rule allowed businesses to dump pollutants into unprotected waterways and fill in some wetlands, threatening public water supplies downstream and harming wildlife and habitat.”

They quoted Kelly Moser, Senior Attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Clean Water Defense Initiative. She said, “Today, the Biden administration restored needed clean water protections so that our nation’s waters are guarded against pollution for fishing, swimming, and as sources of drinking water.”

At Issue: Definition of “Waters of the U.S.”

Meanwhile, courts at various levels are still pondering the definition of “Waters of the U.S.” At issue: How far up in the branching structure of a river may the government enforce regulations? As far as it’s navigable? One level up from that? Two? Three? Infinitely? And do the rules apply to desert areas the same way they do to subtropical areas like SE Texas?

The Biden administration decision is a setback for various industries. It broadens which wetlands, streams and rivers can be regulated under the Clean Water Act.

But given the impacts to public health and the immense economic interests at stake, this won’t be the last time we see the rules change. An army of lobbyists is likely mobilizing right now.

Local Impact

Several developments in the Lake Houston Area contained wetlands affected regulation changes. Consider, for instance, the case of Woodridge Village. The Army Corps ruled that it contained wetlands, but that the wetlands didn’t fall under their jurisdiction because of rules in effect at the time. So there was no violation of the Clean Water Act. Hundreds of homes in Elm Grove and North Kingwood Forest flooded, partially as a result of the environmental destruction.

In this area, sediment pollution is one of our most serious concerns. We’ve seen repeated and almost constant releases into the West Fork from 20-square miles of sand mines immediately upstream from us.

Confluence of Spring Creek and West Fork by 59 Bridge. TCEQ found that Liberty Mines discharged 56 million gallons of white waste water into the West Fork.
Repeated and multiple breaches at Triple PG mine discharged sediment-laden water directly into Caney Creek. This one lasted for months.

Searching on the word “breach” in ReduceFlooding.com pulls up 116 stories, many of which show multiple breaches.

But mining isn’t the only upstream issue at stake. So is sediment pollution from new development.

Drainage ditch in Artavia. March 2020 in West Fork watershed
Eroding ditch in Colony Ridge (East Fork Watershed) due to lack of backslope interceptor systems and grass.

Making Private Expenses a Public Cost

The EPA lists sediment as the most common pollutant in rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs. It has contributed to flooding thousands of homes in the Lake Houston Area.

West Fork mouth bar almost totally blocked the river where it meets Lake Houston.
East Fork Mouth Bar grew 4000 feet in two years between Harvey and Imelda.

Both mouth bars above have since been dredged at great public expense, but abuses continue. I just wish we could all find a way to live together. This should not be a case of health and safety vs. economic development. We need all three for communities to prosper.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/2/23

1952 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.

Triple P.G. Owner Transferred Ownership of Sand Mine Days After AG Filed Suit

Mere days after the Texas Attorney General (AG) filed a lawsuit against Triple P.G. Sand Development, the mine’s owner transferred ownership of the mine. Even though the transfer was recorded in October, the attorney general says the papers were dated for the prior January — before the unauthorized discharges from the mine that triggered the AG’s lawsuit.

Hundreds of Millions of Gallons of Wastewater Discharged

Two unauthorized discharges from the mine in Porter during May and September last year let hundreds of millions of gallons of sediment-laden wastewater escape into the headwaters of Lake Houston, the source of drinking water for 2 million people.

The putative ownership transfer was recorded in October, days after the lawsuit was filed. But it was dated for the prior January—before the May and September discharges that triggered the law suit!

Triple P.G. Mine in Porter. Photographed on 6/16/2020. Bright colors likely due to high chloride content or Cyanobacteria which may contain cyanotoxins.

Suspicious Ownership Transfer

The AG didn’t allege any motives. But the suspicious ownership transfer may have been an attempt to shield assets from prosecutors. People often set up multiple companies, trusts and partnerships to shield assets in one from lawsuits in another.

As a result of the transfer, the Texas Attorney General (AG) amended the State’s original petition and application for injunctive relief against Triple P.G. on 6/17/2020. The new petition added five additional defendants. They include:

  • Guniganti Family Property Holdings, L.L.C.
  • Prabhakar R. Guniganti, individually
  • Prabhakar R. Guniganti, as Director of Triple P.G. Sand Development, L.L.C.
  • Prabhakar R. Guniganti, as sole manager of Guniganti Family Property Holdings, L.L.C.
  • Guniganti Children’s 1999 Trust.

TCEQ Surprised by “Different Operator” at Facility

The Attorney General’s amended petition states, “In or around May 2020, prior to expiration of the Temporary Injunction, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) investigators conducted a site visit and were informed that a different operator had taken over operations at the Facility.”

Ironically, instead of shielding assets (if that’s what he was trying to do), Guniganti exposed more of his family’s holdings. Now they’re all part of the lawsuit.

Guniganti Family Property Holdings, L.L.C. was the recorded property owner at the time of the May and September 2019 breaches. However, new ownership records now show that in October 2019, Guniganti Children’s 1999 Trust owned the property.

Prabhakar R. Guniganti is the sole director of Triple P.G. Sand Development and sole manager of the Guniganti Family Property Holdings. The AG’s amended petition alleges Guniganti orchestrated the ownership transfer as the sole manager of Defendant Guniganti Family Property Holdings.

Officially, the State filed the amended petition to name additional entities that are responsible for the 2019 discharges. They also share a continuing responsibility to prevent discharges in the future by performing corrective actions to improve the site.

Basis for Lawsuit

The TCEQ cited Triple P.G. in both months during 2019 for the unauthorized discharge of millions of gallons of sediment-laden process wastewater. In May, the entire contents of the Triple P.G. dredge pond (about 180 acres in area) were released into Caney Creek. TCEQ estimates 325 million gallons of sediment-laden water exited into Caney Creek, which leads directly to the East Fork of the San Jacinto River and onward to Lake Houston. Then, more breaches occurred in September, 2019.

Triple P.G. agreed to injunctive relief last fall. The injunction required Triple P.G. to cease dredging operations, to repair breaches, and to retain an engineer who would propose a plan to ensure the berms could hydraulically isolate the process waste water from waters of the State. The Court entered the Agreed Temporary Injunction on November 25, 2019.

Ever since, Guniganti has been trying to dry-mine sand. Miraculously, water inside the mine has disappeared while water outside the mine has gotten higher.

The AG contends that regardless of which entity owned the mine, they all lead back to the same man and they all had an obligation to ensure that process wastewater was not discharged into waters of the State.

The AG believes all entities are liable for unauthorized discharges pursuant to Texas Water Code 26.121(c), which makes it unlawful to “cause, suffer, allow, or permit the discharge of any waste” in violation of the Texas Water Code.

Dr. Guniganti At Center Allegations

“As the individual with complete management control of sand mining company Triple P.G. and with complete management control of the property on which the Facility is located, Defendant Guniganti had authority to direct activities at the site, including the authority to prohibit or modify sand mining operations on the property, to ensure Triple P.G. maintained adequate berms, and/or to maintain the berms at the Facility to ensure that process wastewater was not discharged into waters of the state,” the AG alleges.

Guniganti, a cardiologist from Nacogdoches who moonlights as a miner, could be fined up to a million dollars for the discharges.

These discharges are the latest in a long series of problems for the troubled mine. For the complete list, read the Attorney General’s entire 51-page amended petition.

The defendant(s) have until July 20, 2020, to respond to the amended petition.

In other developments in the case, Dr. Guniganti has requested to replace his Austin-based attorney with one from Lufkin.

Posted by Bob Rehak on July 1, 2020

1037 Days after 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.

Clean Water Act, R.I.P.

Confluence of Spring Creek (left) and San Jacinto West Fork (top) on March 6, 2020. The Montgomery County line cuts left to right through the center of this picture at the tip of that white sand bar.

If the Clean Water Act were still being enforced, we might see scenes like this less often. You’re looking at the confluence of Spring Creek and the San Jacinto West Fork. It has looked like this during random flyovers in four out of the last six months.

Clean Water Act Abuses

Only after the infamous and extreme white-water incident in November last year was West Fork pollution reduced briefly. The white-water episode was so egregious that it attracted network television attention and prompted a crackdown by the TCEQ. TCEQ cited Liberty Materials in Conroe for allegedly discharging 56 million gallons of white goop into the West Fork. The discharge had 25 times the normal level of suspended solids in it.

Liberty isn’t the only sand mine on the West Fork. You can find approximately 20 square miles of sand mines in the twenty mile stretch between I-69 and I-45. Spring Creek on the other hand has only one mine – almost 30 miles upstream at SH249.

Most West Fork mines have a tendency to leak waste water from time to time. That’s part of what you see in the photo above. Below are seven NEW breaches spotted this month upstream on the West Fork.

Mine water leaks into wetlands and out past perimeter road at LMI E. River Road mine in Conroe.
Pumping water over dike at same Liberty Materials Mine on River Road.
At same mine, a pipe through the dike discharges water at a fixed height into an adjoining ditch that leads to the West Fork.
Liberty Materials leaks water into backyard of home in Bennett Estates. From here it goes into a storm drain on Calhoun and into the river.
Difficult to see at this resolution, there’s a pump in front of the trees on the left. It’s sending waste water into the wetlands below the mine.
Hallett sprouts another leak into the West Fork (lower right).
Most of these breaches happen out of sight and never get reported.

MoCo Tax Breaks for Polluters

Why such a high concentration of mines on the West Fork? It might have something to do with tax breaks by the Montgomery County Appraiser’s Office which passes out ag and timber exemptions for industrial cesspools. That’s contrary to how the State Controller says MoCo should appraise the mines. But nobody at the state level seems to put much pressure on MoCo.

Construction Practices Muddy Clean Water Act, Too

Another part of the West Fork turbidity problem is upstream construction in Montgomery County. Believe it or not, Montgomery County starts at the tip of that white sand bar at the confluence of Spring Creek and the West Fork.

Sediment control is not a high priority for MoCo developers. Nor is enforcement a high priority for MoCo. In fact, the East Montgomery County Improvement District actively advertises its LACK of rules as a way to lure developers.

That’s how you get construction practices like those in the new 2200 acre Artavia complex going in next to the West Fork sand mines, just south of SH242 by FM1314. Brand new culverts are already clogging. See below.

Artavia drainage ditch and culverts. A river of mud.

More on Artavia in a future post.

The erosion is so bad, even the erosion is eroding in many places.

Decline of Clean Water Act

Then, of course, another part of the problem is the gutting of the Federal Clean Water Act. States, counties and municipalities used to have someone setting standards and looking over their shoulders. The rollback of key provisions, such as the redefinition of “waters of the U.S.”, has been heralded as a boon to developers and the death knell of wetlands.

Just last week, we saw the Army Corps rule that the wetlands on Perry Homes Woodridge Village property did NOT fall under their jurisdiction, so there was no violation of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

Of course, you don’t have to change regulations to kill them. You can just not enforce them. By turning a blind eye. Gutting enforcement staff. Overruling staff. Reinterpreting policy. Ignoring evidence. Or resetting priorities. To name just a few.

Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone

Many of us who grew up before the Clean Water Act (formerly known as Federal Water Pollution Control Act, passed in 1972) remember how bad things were. Like the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969.

The San Jacinto West Fork has already been named one of the most endangered rivers in America. But my biggest fears are not for the river. They’re for the health of the millions of people who depend on water from the river. For the people who will flood when the river becomes clogged with sediment. For the poor and elderly who can’t afford sky high bills to cover the cost of water treatment. And for the long-term health of the economic hub of the region, Houston.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/14/2020

928 Days after 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.

Latest Sand Mine Breaches and Near Breaches

In the continuing saga of sand mining on the East and West Forks of the San Jacinto, I present the results of my January 20, 2020, flyover. I found three breaches and two near breaches between I-45 and the East Fork. See below.

Liberty Materials Mine in Conroe

Let’s start upriver on the San Jacinto West Fork near Conroe. These first two images come from the Liberty Materials Mine that the TCEQ cited for allegedly discharging 56 million gallons of white slime into the river.

In this photo you can see that road (upper right) has repairs blocking a previous breach. However, discharge continues to flow through the dike. This indicates potential structural instability that might jeopardize the dike in a major flood and cause another massive discharge.
A couple hundred yards away at the same mine, there’s so little road left, driving a car across it could cause collapse of the remaining dike. That jeopardizes safety of workers and the safety of drinking water. Only four or five feet separates a massive mining pond from the West Fork in the foreground.

There sure is a lot riding on that little spit of sand. If this one blows out, I pray the TCEQ and Attorney General goes after them for gross negligence. How could they ignore this?

Hallett Mine in Porter

The next two shots come from the Hallett Mine in Porter. They show the same issue from two different angles.

Looking toward the pond.
Looking toward the West Fork. Another portion of the mine lies on the far side of the river.

Abandoned Mine in Porter

This is the drainage ditch that parallels Northpark Drive before it enters the river. This mine appears to be abandoned. Regardless, sediment, seems to consistently wash out of it. This breach has been open for since 2015.

Triple PG Sand Mine in Porter on Caney Creek

The Attorney General is suing this mine for breaches that remained open for months after the May floods last year. Currently, the mine is operating (but not dredging) under a temporary injunction until the case goes to trial on June 22. While mine owners have closed other breaches on White Oak and Caney Creeks, this breach remains open. Technically, it doesn’t connect with with river until a flood. But during floods, photographic evidence shows that Caney Creek reroutes itself through the mine, raising pressure that causes dikes in other places to collapse.

The shot below shows headward erosion toward five pipelines carrying highly volatile liquids.

Such breaches and near breaches create a good argument for creating minimum setbacks for mines from the creeks and rivers that supply our drinking water.

Sadly, legislation that could have done that died in committee during the last session. But there’s always next year. I will continue to monitor how well the mines do until new measures can be reintroduced. Pressure is building throughout the state to control air and water pollution from aggregate mines.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/12/2020

897 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.

East Fork Water Shockingly Clear with Mines Closed

The attorney general has had production at the Triple PG mine on Caney Creek shut down and the breaches in the mine’s dikes closed since early November. Also, the Texas Concrete mine in Plum Grove on the East Fork closed. And the TCEQ is forcing them to fix breaches and replant exposed areas before abandoning the mine. It could just be a coincidence, but water clarity on the East Fork and Caney Creek have improved to a shocking degree with both of the major mines out of action. See below. Said Kingwood resident John Knoerzer, “This is the clearest I’ve ever seen the East Fork.”

Photo taken by John Knoerzer on East Fork at East End Park on 12/20/2019.

It’s not Cozumel, but it’s far better than the opaque brown liquid we had.

Return of Eagles

Resident Josh Alberson reports that he’s seen cormorants, pelicans and bald eagles return to the East Fork and Caney Creek. “They were feasting on the white bass.” Says Alberson, “Last Sunday, we saw more birds than we had every seen working. It was National Geographic worthy, but I couldn’t get close enough to get any quality pics or video.” He attributes all the birds to both the bass and the clarity of the water. “It helps the birds spot the prey,” he says.

Only problem: there’s so much sand in Caney Creek that it’s hard to boat upstream. Josh Alberson informs me that his jet boat got stuck on a giant sand bar immediately downstream from the Triple PG mine. Boats with propellers can’t get through at all, he says.

Please Help Document Wildlife and Water Clarity

It seems to me that this change, if it is permanent, is important to document. Any boaters or jet skiers who can make it upstream, please send pics through the submissions page on this web site.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/21/2019

844 Days after Hurricane Harvey and 93 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.

TCEQ Goes After Texas Concrete Mine With Four Breached Dikes, Unstabilized Soil and Lapsed Permit

In October, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) issued a notice of enforcement (NOE) to a Texas Concrete Plum Grove sand mine for discharging wastewater into the East Fork. During Imelda, the mine’s dikes breached in at least four separate places. The TCEQ also issued another NOE for failure to stabilize soil in the mine before letting its permit lapse.

No Activity at Plant for Months

TCEQ investigator Christian Eubanks says they saw no activity at the plant for two months before the investigation after Imelda. No one at Texas Concrete answered phone calls to discuss their intentions for the mine.

Citizen Complaint Leads to Investigation

When floodwaters swept through the mine, sediment and industrial wastewater washed into the East Fork. Shortly thereafter, Josh Alberson, a Kingwood resident, noticed a distinct difference in the color of water coming off Caney Creek and the East Fork while boating. His personal investigation led to the mine at 7530 FM 1010 Road, Cleveland in Liberty County. After seeing the breaches, he then filed a complaint with the TCEQ which conducted a formal investigation.

12 Allegations of Unauthorized Discharges in 4 Years, Then This One

Texas Concrete Sand and Gravel, Inc. has a troubled history at its Plum Grove location. TCEQ investigated the operation nine times in the last four years for 17 alleged violations. Twelve involved unauthorized discharge of industrial waste. Then came this investigation, adding to their home run count.

Previous alleged violations included failure to:

  • Prevent unauthorized discharge of industrial waste (7 investigations plus 5 complaints)
  • Renew registration
  • Document steps taken to address benchmark exceedances
  • Comply with record keeping and reporting requirements
  • Maintain compliance with permitted numeric effluent limitations
  • Sample at designated outfalls.

Four Breaches Photographed At Texas Concrete Plant

TCEQ investigators photographed four breaches in the 70-acre mine‘s dikes.
Breach 1. This and all photos below were taken by Christian Eubanks of the TCEQ.
Breach 2
Breach 3
Breach 4

Failure to Meet Final Stabilization Requirements

On October 1, 2019, the mine allowed its permit to lapse. A TCEQ overflight on that same day found that large portions of the plant consisted of exposed soil. However, before the mine can legally terminate its permit, it must stabilize soil on the property.

TCEQ defines final stabilization as: “All soil disturbing activities at the site have been completed and a uniform (e.g. evenly distributed, without large bare areas) perennial vegetative cover with a density of 70 percent (%) of the native background vegetative cover for the area has been established on all unpaved areas and areas not covered by permanent structures, or equivalent permanent stabilization measures (such as the use of riprap, gabions, or geotextiles) have been employed.”

TCEQ photo from flyover on 10/1/2019. Note exposed soil circled in red.

Stabilizing soil helps prevent erosion and water pollution. Pollution that could escape through breaches in the mine’s dikes and affect water quality all the way down to Lake Houston.

Need for Greater Setbacks of Mines from Rivers

Since Harvey, I have campaigned to increase the setback distance of mines from rivers to prevent this type of tragedy. Texas has no minimum setbacks. Most other states require at least 100 feet and Alaska requires 1000 feet.

Texas Concrete underscores the need to establish minimum setbacks that would keep dikes from breaching. Once the owners of this mine are gone, who will be there to repair the dikes after the next flood?

Kudos to Josh Alberson for having the curiosity to investigate a problem he saw and the tenacity to follow through. People like Josh make this community great.

For the full text of the TCEQ Report, click here.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/18/2019, with appreciation for Josh Alberson and the TCEQ

811 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 60 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.

Triple PG Sand Mine Denies Attorney General Claims

Surprise. Surprise. The Triple PG Sand Mine has denied all of the claims by the Texas Attorney General in the state’s lawsuit. The attorney general alleged that breaches in the mine’s dikes allowed wastewater to escape into tributaries of Lake Houston, the source of drinking water for two million people.

One Sentence Denial

When I first read the denial, its brevity shocked me – one sentence. It basically says to the attorney general “prove your case.”

I quote: “…Triple PG generally denies each and every allegation contained in Plaintiff’s Original Petition, and all amendments and supplements thereto, and demands strict proof thereof by a preponderance of the evidence.”

I called a lawyer to ask whether such brief denials were common. The answer: yes. My next question: Why?

Why the Brief Denial?

Basically, had the defendant made no reply to the claims within 20 days, it could have had a default judgement entered against it. So this blocks a default judgment. This also stops the clock, forces the Attorney General to reveal more of its case, and gives the defendant more time to develop an affirmative defense … if it has one. Triple PG can always amend its reply later.

AG Already Laid Out Evidence

The TCEQ has performed onsite inspections and overflights. The TCEQ report was made public with the AG filing. But the TCEQ isn’t the only entity investigating. So by delaying a settlement, the mine could be opening itself to additional fines. And the discovery of additional evidence.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration is also investigating the mine thanks to complaints from dozens of residents around the mine.

The AG could also amend its suit if new evidence becomes available.

In addition, numerous residents, including Tony Buzbee, candidate for the Mayor of Houston, have photographed the breaches in this mine’s dikes.

The longer they wait to settle this case, the higher per-day fines could go.

Hearing Delayed Again

The hearing scheduled for November 12 on a permanent injunction against the mine has now been rescheduled for November 25th.

Deny This

When I flew over the mine on November 4, 46 days after Imelda, Triple PG was only starting to fix the second of eight breaches. The TCEQ did not even find all of those breaches because many roads within the mine had washed out when they paid their surprise visit. So delays could add to Triple PG’s woes as they also run up legal fees.

Here’s what breach #2 looked like on 11/4/2019.

Breach between Triple PG sand mine pit (upper left) and White Oak Creek lower right, photographed on 11/4/2019.
Same breach photographed from reverse angle over pit. Note the white scum floating out of the mine.
Third angle shows more scum and trees blown inward toward the mine during the breach.

The Defendant’s response also included a one sentence prayer. They prayed that all charges would be dismissed and that they would be entitled to further relief, which they did not specify. The only other thing the AG sought was a permanent injunction barring the mine from discharging wastewater. But they might seek to recover court costs if found no guilty.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/14/2019

807 Days after Hurricane Harvey and 56 after Imelda

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

The Day That the San Jacinto West Fork Turned White

On Monday, November 4, I flew up the San Jacinto West Fork in a helicopter and was shocked by what I saw. The West Fork had turned milky white. Here are a series of shots starting at the confluence of the West Fork and Spring Creek and heading upstream. Spring Creek angles off to the top of the frame; the West Fork goes right.

Starting at the 59 Bridge…

Note the difference in color between Spring Creek and the West Fork, angling off the right side of the frame. Also note for contrast the normal looking browning water going into the West Fork from the woods at the bottom.
As we turned up the West Fork, I took this shot. Note the color of the pond at the top of the frame for comparison.
This is the first sand mine going upstream. Note the difference in the water heights between the pit (top) and the river bottom. Also note the pipe sending mine wastewater into the West Fork.

Moving North Past the First Mine

A little farther upstream, though, the water was still white.
I debated on adjectives: chalky or milky?

At the Hallett Mine North of Northpark Drive

The Hallett pond on the west side of the river was emptying into the West Fork. Hallett is north of Northpark Road off Sorters.
On the northern side of the Hallett Mine, we spotted this giant breach that had also been open in October. Notice the eroded shoreline opposite the breach. Water must have shot out of that pit with some force.
This was as far north as we went: the northernmost part of the Hallett Mine. Note the color of the pond on the right for contrast. The water looked less white than farther downstream, but still far from its normal brownish color that you see in the pond.

TCEQ Investigating White West Fork

I don’t think we ever found the source of the whitish discoloration although we found several mines contributing to it. When we got to the northern part of the Hallett Mine, time, fuel and air traffic restrictions dictated that we break off the exploration. So…

These photos were sent to the TCEQ and SJRA for investigation. This is the major source of Houston’s drinking water, folks!

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/7/2019

800 Days since Hurricane Harvey

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

Triple PG Mine Scurries to Fill Breaches Day After Attorney General Files Lawsuit

Twenty-three days after Imelda and one day after the Texas Attorney General filed a lawsuit seeking injunctive relief, the owners of the Triple PG Mine in Porter finally took some action to seal at least one of the eight breaches in their dikes.

Photos Taken Saturday Show Start of Repairs

Josh Alberson took the photos below from Caney Creek around 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, October 12, 2019.

While there is now dirt in the breach, it’s not certain what kind. According to Alberson, it appears to be a mix of clay and sand.
If this is the same material used in the same way to plug the May breach, it will probably fail the same way in the next flood.

No Serious Attempt to Compact Materials

Alberson says he observed mine employees dumping fill in the breach, but that he saw no attempt to compact the material with rollers. They did tamp it down with the bucket of the track hoe, however. Here’s what it looked like at about 2PM Saturday from Caney Creek. Not very tamped.

Water in the foreground is part of the original May breach. Repairs from May and so far from September, focused on building a road over the breach that acts as a dam. Two hundred feet of woods once separated the mine from the pit. This “dam” or “dike” is now about 15 feet wide and barely above the water at the low point.

Compare Width of Road to Length of Total Breach

The photo below shows the breach in question before repairs. I shot it from a helicopter on 10.2.2019.

Photo of breach looking west into pit before repairs. Note the location of the island and the width of the road relative to the length of the breach between the pit and Caney Creek (bottom left). Then review the satellite image below from Google Earth taken in February.
Google Earth satellite image before breach in May. Yellow line represents approximate location of breach and measures 218 feet from pit to Caney Creek. Approximate width of repair is 15 feet, 1/14th the width of the original barrier.
Here you can see the width of the road at the end of work today (10/12/2019). Enough to accommodate one way traffic. A reader sent it to me.

Civil Engineer’s Impression of Repairs

Alberson’s brother is a civil engineer. He and another engineer I talked to both felt the repairs were inadequate. When asked what the repairs should consist of, Alberson’s brother suggested:

  • Temporary dam cut at river and in pit.
  • Pump out water.
  • Bring in 100% clay and fill entire dike and previous bank with clay in 1 ft. increments. 
  • Measure clay at its mining point for water content.
  • After each foot, add spray water, then allow to dry to achieve optimum clay cohesion.
  • Roll pack with smooth drum roller.
  • Repeat to needed height.
  • Add geotextile, large stone, and smaller gravel followed by grass on river and pit side.
  • Width and height of damn should be determined by vertical drop of pit and horizontal width (i.e., water pressure on dike). 

He said if they don’t “roll-pack” it, regardless of whether it is made of clay or not, it will fail.

Request for Required Engineering Docs

I requested the TCEQ to provide the engineering documents for the repairs that they demand, consistent with section 301 of their regulations for dikes and levees. Because of the weekend, they could not supply them immediately, but agreed to look and see if they existed.

Impact of “Dike” Failures on Families South of Mine

In the meantime, I interviewed three families below the mine today. They and physical evidence all indicated that water swept through the mine from north to south during Imelda. They said the MINE then flooded them before White Oak or Caney Creek rose. The water from the mine rose so quickly that:

  • One family narrowly escaped with their horses (unlike Harvey when one died).
  • Water covered a second family’s SUV in less than one hour. Their house – on 10-foot silts – took on two feet of water.
  • A third family fled early with their disabled daughter, only to find their home destroyed again when they returned. They also found their foundation undermined by the force of the water from the mine.

There really are no dikes between the mine and these families and dozens of others in their neighborhood. The road surrounding the mine is flush with ground level. It provides no protection when stormwaters capture the pit.

More on their stories in future posts. In the meantime, here are some photos of the heartbreaking devastation they suffered.

The back of Tom and Sherry Gills garage faces the mine. Just feet from the mine’s southern boundary, scouring was so bad that it undermined the foundation.
Shelley Portillo’s porch also faces the mine. Water went in one side of her home and exited the opposite side, leaving sand waves in her home.
Melissa Stowe’s back yard. Direction of flow came from mine and pushed construction debris up against tree line. Elevating her house ten feet after Harvey wasn’t enough. Twelve feet of water inundated her property.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/12/2019 with help from Josh Alberson and Charlie Fahrmeier

774 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 23 since Imelda

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 State of Texas.

Texas Attorney General Files Charges Against Triple PG Sand Mine

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) announced today that the Texas Attorney General has filed a petition and application for injunctive relief against the Triple PG Sand Development, L.L.C. of Kingwood. The charges allege violations of Chapter 26 of the Texas Water Code and related TCEQ rules pertaining to the discharge of industrial waste and process wastewater.

For the full text of the attorney general’s filing which includes TCEQ investigations dating back to 2015, click here.

Note that the latest TCEQ investigation only covers breaches that investigators could reach safely from the ground. However, from the air, I observed many more breaches.

Maximum Possible Penalties

If past performance is any indication of the future, the mine is likely to receive a slap on the wrist. Fines against sand mines from the TCEQ have averaged around $800. However, this is more serious. The attorney general is involved. And stiffer penalties are now available thanks to a new law sponsored by State Representative Dan Huberty in the last legislation session.

If a court levies maximum penalties against this mine, the owners could be liable for $1.1 million plus $25,000 per day for each day breaches in the mine’s dikes remain open. That could easily exceed another half million dollars.

In addition, Ramiro Garcia, head of enforcement for the TCEQ, said the commission disengaged from settlement talks with Triple PG regarding May breaches. Those breaches also took weeks to patch. If lumped in with this, the court could assess yet another half million dollars.

Claim Patches in May Breaches Made with Clay

According to the results of the May investigation, investigators believe the mine patched its breaches with clay. But photos of the failed dikes indicate they were made from sand.

Breach of Triple PG Mine on Caney Creek in September. Photo taken 9/29/19.
Close up of same breach reveals that this repair was clearly made from sand. Photo taken on 9/29/2019.
Here’s what the same breach looked like from the air. Photo taken on 10/2/2019. I photographed at least 7 additional breaches that same day.
Photo courtesy of Josh Alberson, showing that the breach remained open last Saturday, October 5, when he took this shot from his jet boat on Caney Creek. Investigators found the same breach open on the 9th, 20 days after Imelda.

About Chapter 26 of Water Code

Chapter 26 covers water quality control and industrial waste water. It defines “Industrial waste” to mean “…waterborne liquid, gaseous, or solid substances that result from any process of industry, manufacturing, trade, or business.” Its definition of “pollutant” includes “dredged spoils.”

“Pollution” also means “the alteration of the physical, thermal, chemical, or biological quality of, or the contamination of, any water in the state that renders the water harmful, detrimental, or injurious to humans, animal life, vegetation, or property or to public health, safety, or welfare, or impairs the usefulness or the public enjoyment of the water for any lawful or reasonable purpose.”

Triple PG Mine is at the confluence of floodways for White Oak Creek and Caney Creek.

The mine is in the confluence of two floodways: White Oak Creek and Caney Creek. Both are tributaries to Lake Houston, the source of drinking water for millions of people. The purpose of Chapter 26: “to maintain the quality of water in the state consistent with the public health and enjoyment…”

The code considers the possible adverse effect that illegal discharges might have on receiving bodies of water, such as Lake Houston, and on parks, such as East End Park in Kingwood.

Although the Code permits some discharges. However, “Discharges covered by the general permit will not include a discharge of pollutants that will cause significant adverse effects to water quality.”

Chapter 26 stretches more than 200 pages and 58,000 words. So I won’t attempt to summarize it here, except to say that it also includes the disposal of chlorides. One former executive for the City of Houston’s public works department told me that he personally witnessed many sand mines intentionally breaching dikes under the cover of floods to eliminate chloride buildups in their wash water.

About TCEQ Rules Pertaining to Industrial Waste

It is not immediately clear which TCEQ rules pertaining to the discharge of industrial waste and process wastewater are part of the charges. The TCEQ also enforces water quality rules for rivers and lakes.

“Companies that pollute Texas waterways will be held accountable,” says TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker. “Every business has a responsibility to respect laws that protect the environment and public health, and I applaud the attorney general for acting swiftly on my request to hold Triple P.G. Sand Development fully responsible.”

The State of Texas requests that the court grant the following relief as allowed by law:

  • A permanent injunction
  • Civil penalties and reasonable attorney fees
  • Court costs
  • Investigative costs.

Repeated Dike Failures

The dikes of the Triple PG Sand Mine do not appear to comply with TCEQ rules for dike construction. They are built from sand and have failed repeatedly in multiple locations. However, the TCEQ rules clearly state, that structural integrity is the number one concern. “Construction must be based upon sound engineering principles. Structural integrity must withstand any waters which the levee or other improvement is intended to restrain or carry, considering all topographic features, including existing levees.”

The Attorney General’s charges do not mention dike construction. Reading the requirements, however, it will be interesting to see which professional engineer signed off on the plans. The requirements state:

§301.36. Plans To Bear Seal of Engineer.

“All preliminary plans and other plans which are submitted with an application for approval of a levee or other improvement shall be prepared by or under the direction of a registered professional engineer and signed by the registered professional engineer whose seal shall appear upon or be affixed thereto.”

Stay tuned. More investigation to follow.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/11/2019, with thanks to Dan Huberty, Charlie Fahrmeier and Josh Alberson

773 Days after Hurricane Harvey and 22 after Imelda

All thoughts in this post represent my opinions on matters of public safety and policy. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.