Tag Archive for: dikes

Are Sand Mine Dikes Designed to Fail?

After 2.5 years of examining photos and videos of the so-called “dikes” in sand mines, I have come to believe that some are designed to fail. In some cases, mines cause them to fail.

In most cases, the “dikes” are not really dikes. They’re just the edges of pits that miners have excavated. Or roads around the pits made of sand that easily erode.

And because miners mine so close to the river, when those pits fill with water, they overflow. The resulting erosion cuts channels between the pit and the river that allow the pits to discharge a portion of their wastewater. Lake Houston and public drinking water become collateral damage.

High Cost of Flimsy Construction

After the storm, miners throw some sand in the breach and wait for it to happen again. The sand creates only the appearance of a fix.

Month after month, I’ve photographed active breaches, “patched” breaches, and scars in the landscape from older breaches. Many reopen multiple times.

Breaches are so common that, in my opinion, they may be part of some miners’ business plans.

High Cost of Silt

If discharges consisted of plain water, I might not care. But the water usually carries silt with it. Miner’s settling ponds can fill with silt which has little marketable value. Flushing it downriver solves another problem.

Miners externalize their cleanup costs by foisting them off on an unsuspecting public. That sediment clogs rivers that must be dredged to avoid flooding. It reduces the capacity of the lake. And it escalates the City’s water treatment costs.

A retired high-level Public Works manager told me he routinely investigated and found breaches at sand mines during floods. In his opinion, many of the breaches were intentional and the floods created the perfect “cover” for the illegal discharges. “Blame it on Mother Nature,” he said.

West Fork Images from February Flyover

Below, a sampling of more than 1000 images I took on 2/13/2020. The first batch shows mines on the San Jacinto West Fork between SH242 and US59. I traveled NW to SE toward 59. I’ve arranged images in the same order.

Sand mine pond and water’s path to the river (right). Pond is full to the brim and will overflow on a minor rain.
Another angle looking north toward the same breach.
West Fork is migrating toward pit on right and will soon enter it. A powerful argument for reasonable setbacks from river.
Dike erosion at Liberty Materials Mine. The TCEQ alleges this mine discharged 56 million gallons of that white gunk into the West Fork last November. This breach has been like this for months.
Another pond at the same mine. The only thing holding back another illegal discharge is a feeble road made of sand. See close up in next pic of area near poll just left of center.
Close up of road in upper left of previous photo. Note how water seeping through it is already causing road to collapse.
Silt spreading into settling pond. See also reverse shot below.
Reverse angle from previous shot, but same pond. See West Fork in background and note how road in foreground was cut by spreading silt.
Site of previous double breach at RGI mine. Note gray area in second row of dikes. Process water from the pond behind it broke into the settling pond in the foreground and from there into the West Fork. TCEQ cited owners.
Two separate ponds may have shared this same “wash” to the river (foreground). Pond in middle right is actively discharging into river. See reverse angle in next shot.
Same discharge as in previous shot. From this angle it is easier to see the active discharge.
Same breach from third angle. From this angle, you can clearly see the path and the discharge.
This pond has been discharging into the river for months. Note the difference in the color of the river water and discharge water. This indicates the discharge water is still holding silt.
Reverse shot of same breach highlights both the path and the color difference of the discharge.
This pond is leaking into a drainage channel that parallels Northpark Drive south of Oakhurst.
Former breach at Eagle mine on Sorters Road. West Fork in foreground.
Scars from previous breaches. One of these was intentional, though I’m not sure which. See video below.
Video by resident who wishes to remain anonymous shows intentional breach at the mine above.
Another scar from previous breach.
Confluence of Spring Creek (left) and West Fork San Jacinto (right). Facing west. Note color difference in water. It’s frequently visible.
Same area looking southeast toward Humble. West Fork on left.
Same area looking NE toward Kingwood. West Fork comes in from left.
Between the 59 bridge in the previous shot and this area, the Army Corps spent more than $90 million removing sediment from the West Fork. The City, County and State could spend another $35 million removing this blockage.

East Fork Images from February Flyover

Breach into Caney Creek at Triple PG sand mine was open for months and became the focus of a suit by the Attorney General. Note steepness of sides of “fix,” and erosion along side. Best Management Practices call for sloping and planting sides of dikes to reduce erosion.
Wider shot shows just how much forest was blown out in this breach, leading one to wonder whether this was caused solely by nature.
Another former breach into Caney Creek from the Triple PG mine. Only this eroding road stands between the mine and the creek.
Also at the Triple PG mine in Porter, this breach into White Oak Creek remained open for months. It, too, was the subject the Attorney General’s lawsuit. A restraining order against the mine calls for repairs to be certified by a professional engineer. This looks as though they may have tried to add concrete to the sand and stabilize it with rebar. However, note that the concrete, if that’s what it is, doesn’t rise much above the water. The road is made from eroding sand that will blow out in the next storm.
Reverse shot of same breach looking west. No concrete or rebar visible here – only rilling along steep sides of road. Rilling is the term for those vertical erosion channels.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/24/2020

909 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 158 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 Finally Starts Plugging Breach on White Oak Creek

In September, Imelda caused the Triple PG sand mine dikes to breach in multiple locations. As a result, the mine’s process water flushed into the drinking water for millions of people. When the owners left the breaches open for weeks, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) filed a harsh report with the Texas Attorney General. The AG then sued the mine on October 11.

While the Triple PG owners immediately rushed to seal off the most visible breach into Caney Creek on October 12, other breaches still remain open.

On Tuesday of this week, 46 days after the flood, the Triple PG mine was finally attempting to seal off the main breach into White Oak Creek, another tributary of Lake Houston. I took all of the photos below during the afternoon of November 4, 2019.

The TCEQ had fined Triple PG in 2015. TCEQ again fined the mine in May of this year for allowing process water to escape into the City’s drinking water for weeks. That fine totaled more than $18,000. But when it happened again in September, the Texas Attorney General sued the owners for more a million dollars.

Triple PG White Oak Creek Breach Still Open on 11.4.19

After the AG suit, I thought repairs to all breaches would follow quickly. So I rented a helicopter on 11.4.2019 to check their status. That’s when I took all the photos below. What I saw should have shocked me, but sadly, it did not.

Miners had not yet sealed the White Oak breach. And a white substance was floating out of the mine through it.

Triple PG attempts to repair breach to White Oak Creek on 11/4/2019. The narrow, washed out section of the road on the right looks like it might have been a previous attempt at a repair that failed already.

Meanwhile, Repairs to Triple PG Caney Creek Breach Failing Already

Meanwhile, the breach repair (below), first photographed on October 12, appeared to be slumping into Caney Creek already. Notice how the road is collapsing near the trees at the bottom of the frame in this photo. Glad I’m not driving heavy equipment over that road! Quick call the MSHA! Notice also the difference in the water elevation on either side.

The repair to the Caney Creek breach completed last month appears to be failing already.
Looking west over Caney Creek in the foreground. Erosion is already visible in this side shot of the same repair from a different angle.

Water appears to be piping through the dirt in the repaired breach. Note the wet appearance in several places that also exhibit erosion near the bottom of the dike. Piping is one of the major causes of dike failure. Water seeps under the dike creating channels which undermine it.

Trapped Stormwater: A Problem for Mines in Floodways

A high and constant level of the water in a such a mine creates outward pressure on dikes that invites failure. A spokesman for the Mine Safety and Health Administration said that typically mines must find ways to get rid of excess water after heavy rains or risk breaches. Some try engineered solutions such as spillways. However, Triple PG mine also faces environmental constraints. Specifically, Triple PG cannot flush its process water into the City’s drinking water. Especially when the Attorney General is looking over their shoulder.

My conclusion. Floodways are just dangerous places to build sand mines and this mine sits in two floodways.

Six More Breaches

Here’s a second breach into Caney Creek that they haven’t even started repairing. It appears that water overflowed the pit and started traversing down the side on a diagonal. Note the tree leaning into the creek in the sandy area at the bottom.
And a third breach into Caney Creek. But at least they repaired the road above this one.
And a fourth breach into Caney Creek.
And a second breach into White Oak Creek behind the mine’s stockpile.
And the start of an exit breach along the mine’s southern perimeter where so many homes in Walden Woods flooded. To my eye, it appears that there is little or no elevation difference between the mine road and surrounding homes. So I am not even sure that this qualifies as a dike, or is just the edge of a pond.
And the mother of all breaches on the north side of the mine.

Tick Tock Tick Tock

The suit filed by the Texas Attorney General seeks monetary relief of “not more than $1 million.” But here’s where it gets interesting. The Texas Water Code section 7.102 states that penalties can range up to $25,000 per day for EACH day of EACH violation. It also specifies that “Each day of a CONTINUING violation is a SEPARATE violation.”

With all of these other breaches (that the TCEQ investigators could not see when they first inspected the mine because of washed out roads), these violations could add up quickly. Let’s see. 48 days x $25,000 = $1,200,000 for each breach. If the AG amended the lawsuit, that could add up to some serious bank.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11.6.2019

799 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 48 since Imelda

The thoughts expressed in this post represent my 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.

River Migration: Another Reason for Greater Sand-Mine Setbacks

River migration can imperil sand-mine dikes and that can imperil people downstream.

In the case presented below, the San Jacinto river migrated 258 feet toward a dike in only 23 years and now threatens it. The river has eaten away at a dike by migrating an average of 12.4 feet per year. The dike is now only 38 feet wide. This a textbook case for why we need greater separation between mines and the San Jacinto river. Another dike failure could exacerbate downstream sedimentation and flooding, as it has before.

River Migration Raises Questions about Setbacks and Abandonment

This example of river migration raises serious questions about the lack of setback requirements for Texas sand mines. As rivers migrate toward mines, they can breach dikes and increase the risk of future breaches. Sediment then sent downstream can block rivers and streams, and contribute to worse flooding.

In some cases, mining companies may still be around to repair breaches. But what happens when the mine is played out and no one is there to repair the dike? Hundreds of acres of silt could suddenly be exposed to river currents and washed downstream. As more and more mines on the West Fork approach the end of their lives, this is becoming a huge concern.

Before Sand Mines

This series of satellite images from Google Earth starts in 1995, before there were any sand mines on either side of the river at this location. I created the red line in a separate layer above the satellite images. As we move forward in time, the location of the line will NOT change; but the location of the river WILL.

1/18/1995 before sand mining in this area of the West Fork

By 12/31/2001, the river had shifted slightly. We now have a sand mine on the east side of the river. Note the width of the dike and the road on top of it.

By 1/25/2004, the river had eaten away at the dike and threatened the road. 

1/14/2006: The river has almost completely shifted from its original bed and wiped out a large part of the road

1/8/2008: The dike has become dangerously thin, and the road has completely disappeared.

3/14/2014: The mining company has shored up the road by adding fill to both sides of the dike, increasing sedimentation in the river.

On 5/31/2015, the Memorial Day Flood inundated the mine and wiped out the road again. Note the large body of water at the far left. This was a new pit started on the west side of the river that year. Notice how the dike on the left has been breached and silt from the mine is flowing directly into the river.

7/31/2015: The dike on the left remains open and erosion from the Memorial Day flood has eaten the road on the right dike. Twenty years after the start of this sequence, the river has now completely migrated from its original path.

Then along came the Tax Day Flood of 2016.

By 1/23/17, we see sediment building up at the south end of the both pits from the storm during the previous year. This shows that the current was strong enough to move sand within the pits, something the miners say is impossible.

By 8/30/17, the entire area was inundated. Peak flow during Harvey actually happened the day before this photo was taken.  It was four times greater than what you see above.

On 10/28/17, two months after Harvey, the dike on the right has almost disappeared. It is now a mere 38 feet wide. The red line, which represents the original riverbed, no longer overlaps the current river bed. The pond next to the G in Google has almost completely filled in, more evidence of sediment migration within the pit.

Reckless Endangerment?

This series of river migration images shows the relentless forces of erosion. Mining in the floodway so close to the river increases sedimentation, and as a consequence, the risk of flooding.

We’re already spending tens of millions of public tax dollars to dredge the San Jacinto and restore its carrying capacity. Sediment clogged it, in large part, because sand mine dikes have failed repeatedly to protect the mines from floods.

At what point does the honorable pursuit of profit become reckless endangerment? At what point does hope that the dikes will hold become willful blindness? Since when does one man’s unfettered right to mine sand give him the right to damage others and imperil public safety? Why do legislators allow business practices that endanger neighboring communities? When will regulators see the partial truths spread by TACA for what they are – an deceptive attempt to escape liability for egregious business practices? And above all, what happens when miners walk away from the property but floods continue as they always have.

Property Rights Vs. Public Safety

Miners claim they have the right to do what they want on their property. But not at the expense of public safety. Should the owners of commercial buildings be allowed to operate without fire alarms, sprinkler systems and safety exits just because it’s their property?

Miners have choices. They don’t need to compromise safety. The meander belt of the San Jacinto stretches for miles. There’s plenty of sand out of the floodway to mine.

At the current rate, without human intervention, river migration should capture the mine on the right side of these photos in about three years. It won’t be the first time something like this has happened.

To prevent such disasters in the making and protect public water sources, other states and countries have established setback regulations from rivers. Texas should do the same.

Posted on August 29, 2018 by Bob Rehak

365 Days since Hurricane Harvey flooded the Lake Houston Area

As always this is my opinion on a matter of public policy and is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP statutes of the Great State of Texas.