Tag Archive for: Hanson Aggregates

Sand Miners Act Like They Own Our Rivers

Who owns our rivers? In Texas, the state owns navigable streams and rivers. People may not obstruct them, drive through them, dump waste in them, or mine them – at least not without a permit. But sand miners constantly violate those laws with only slap-on-the-wrist fines that amount to another “cost of doing business.” Meanwhile, you are the one who pays the price.

Navigable Streams/Rivers Protected for Public

What does “navigable” mean? This Texas Parks & Wildlife web page describes the concept of navigability “in fact” and “in statute.” There is no precise test for whether a stream is navigable in fact. One court observed that “[w]aters, which in their natural state are useful to the public for a considerable portion of the year are navigable.”

Another link to Texas Parks & Wildlife describes stream navigation law, specifically “Private Uses, Obstructions, Bridges and Dams.”

“Since the days of the civil law of Spain and Mexico, obstructions of navigable streams have been forbidden,” the page begins. “Nowadays the Texas Penal Code, the Texas Water Code, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Code contain prohibitions against obstructing navigable streams, and the Texas Natural Resources Code forbids unauthorized private structures.”

The Commissioner of the General Land Office has some authority to grant easements for rights of way across navigable or state-owned stream beds.

No Right to Obstruct Navigation

However, in general, no one has the right to obstruct navigation or interfere with recreation.

Parks & Wildlife Code § 90.008 states regarding Public Access: “Except as otherwise allowed by law, a person may not restrict, obstruct, interfere with, or limit public recreational use of a protected freshwater area.”

The “protected freshwater area” referred to above is defined in § 90.001 to be “the portion of the bed, bottom, or bank of a stream navigable by statute up to the gradient boundary.” That gets complicated, but generally, it means between vegetated river banks. Sand bars in a river are normally considered part of the river bed even if above water.

Prohibition Against Motor Vehicles in Rivers

In addition to the restrictions on obstruction of navigability, landowners (and the public) are generally prohibited from operating a motor vehicle in the bed of a navigable waterway (Tex. Parks & Wild. Code Section 90.002).

Prohibition Against Unauthorized Discharges

Numerous posts on this website have dealt with the legal limitations on discharging wastewater from sand mines. In general, it’s supposed to contain no more suspended solids and be no more turbid than natural levels in water upstream from the mine.

The only problem with that concept: when you have 20 square miles of sand mines in a 20 mile stretch of the river, it’s hard to find unpolluted water. In effect, the procedure/standard continually “lowers the bar” as you move downstream.

Out of Sight Makes Blight

What sparked this inquiry? As I fly up and down the West Fork, I see things normally out of public view. Such as miners’ dredge lines stretched across the river, blocking navigation. Such as trucks crossing rivers. Such as mines flushing wastewater down the river. Such as mining the riverbed, without permits or paying appropriate taxes.

Few people ever see these violations. And that has led to boldness on the part of miners. There’s little chance they will be caught. It’s kind of like speeding through a barren desert.

I have no idea whether any of the miners involved in most of the incidents below bothered to obtain permits. I do know that in many cases they have not.

Here is a small sampling of what I see from the air, month after month.

Dredge Pipelines Blocking River

Dredge lines block river at Hallett truck crossing.
Dredge lines blocking river at Hanson Aggregates on West Fork in Conroe.

Vehicles Driving Through River

Truck crossing water at Hallett Mine.
Vehicle about to cross river toward Hanson Aggregates Mine on West Fork

Breaches Dump Wastewater into Drinking Water

Breach at Triple PG mine into Caney Creek that was left open for months, now subject of a lawsuit by the Attorney General.
Another breach left open for months at same mine.
Breach into West Fork at Hallett Mine. Hallett says this was their stormwater outfall. It was open for years, but is now closed.
Plugged breach at Hanson Aggregates on West Fork
Often mines don’t breach directly into a river where it would be obvious. Here, the LMI River Bend mine drains onto adjacent properties which then drain to the West Fork.
Same area as above but closer to breach.

Abandoned Without Reclamation

Equipment abandoned in floodway at abandoned West Fork mine. Note oily scum on water.
Another abandoned River Aggregates mine perpetually leaks turbid water into West Fork. Even though mine is not active, an adjacent Hallett pit often leaks into this one and causes it to overflow.

Pumping Wastewater to River and Adjoining Properties

Triple PG mine pumped wastewater over its dike onto adjoining properties while operating under an injunction. Note how water is higher outside the mine (strip of trees in middle of image) than inside.
Note pipe in dike at Hanson Aggregates mine at allows water to drain out into ditch that runs to river.
Pumping water over the dike at LMI’s Moorehead mine.
Pumping wastewater into West Fork at Hallett Mine
At site of former breach, note how pipes now carry wastewater to West Fork from Hallett Mine. Water experts say that intense blue color is either cyanobacteria or extremely high chloride content in water.

River Mining Without Permit

River mining without permit at Spring Wet Sand and Gravel on West Fork.

Effect on Water Quality

Looking north at confluence of West Fork (top) and Spring Creek by US59. West Fork usually runs murkier than Spring Creek right. Almost all area sand mines are on West Fork.
Same confluence as above but looking west. 56,000,000 gallons of white goop from Liberty Mine breach turned West Fork (right) white.

Contributing to Blockages and Flooding

Rivers transport sand and sediment naturally. But with 20 square miles of sand mines built in the floodway of the West Fork upstream from the Lake Houston Area, miners have increased the potential for erosion 33x compared to the average width of the river. The pictures below, taken shortly after Harvey, show the results.

A six foot high dune not present before Harvey occluded the West Fork by 90% according to the US Army Corps of Engineers. More than 600 homes and hundreds of businesses flooded upstream from this blockage.
West fork San Jacinto Mouth Bar after Harvey. Thousands of homes upstream from this blockage flooded during Harvey. It’s costing taxpayers more than $100 million to remove such blockages.

Please share this post with friends and family. It’s time to start getting ready for the next legislative session.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/30/2020

1005 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.

“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.