A House Interim Committee on Aggregate Production Operations (APOs, which include sand mining) just released a 77-page report focusing on the Hill Country and San Jacinto River Basin. The report validates many of the concerns ReduceFlooding.com has raised about sand mining for years.
Purpose: To Balance Priorities While Addressing Concerns
Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen created the committee to help balance public protection, regulation and economic growth. Bonnen tasked the Committee with reviewing complaints about APOs and making recommendations to the 87th Texas Legislature. Issues include:
- Nuisance issues relating to noise and light
- Transportation safety and road repairs
- Air quality
- Distance from adjoining properties
- Disruption of groundwater
- Water quality
- Sedimentation and flooding
- Municipal ordinances.
The report begins with a description of the balancing act regulators face. Sand and gravel used in concrete support economic growth. But they also impact surrounding property values, impact the health of neighbors, and lower quality of life when they cut corners and operate outside of industry best practices to lower production costs.
A number of bills in the last legislative session sought to resolve these conflicts and many, such as “best practices” will be reintroduced during the session which started this month. Pages 7-10 describe the legislation attempted in the last session.
Below, I summarize each issue listed above in order.
The main sources of noise from APOs come from the machinery used to move earth, process raw material and move product. Blasting is also a major consideration in the Hill Country.
The U.S. Mining Health and Safety Administration (MSHA) characterizes noise and one of the most pervasive health hazards in mining. Prolonged exposure to hazardous sound levels over a period of years can cause permanent, irreversible damage to hearing. Hearing loss may occur rapidly under prolonged exposure to high sound levels, or gradually when levels are lower and exposures less frequent.
Ways to reduce noise from moving equipment include use of strobes, alarms, camera systems and motion sensors that can trigger backup beepers as needed.
To mitigate noise from processing equipment, the report suggests chute liners and screens made of rubber or urethane to dampen the sound of the rock hitting the sides of the conveyors. Acoustical enclosures such as walls, berms and natural vegetation can also help protect neighbors.
APOs should monitor the noise exposure at their property line, keeping the noise level at their property line below 65 dB if the property line is within 880 yards of a residential area, school, or house of worship, and 70 dB if not.Report Recommendation
APOs create light pollution when the dust they generate scatters light and creates haze. Those that operate at night may require light for safety that keeps neighbors up.
APOs should be held to IDA and IES standards for outdoor industrial lighting, and fined when they don’t.Report Recommendation
These standards provide operator safety yet shield neighbors from the most annoying effects of light pollution.
The high volume of heavy trucks used to move product creates traffic safety issues near APOs and damages roads. TxDOT allows APOs to build 90-degree driveways. These are less expensive, but more dangerous than acceleration and deceleration lanes which provide massive safety benefits.
Dust and small rocks coming off of trucks cause windshield damage and obscure vision of nearby drivers. Placement of roadway bumps leading up to acceleration lanes would help shake off the dust and smaller rocks from the trucks before they make their way onto the highway.
Studies have also shown that the level of damage to the integrity of roads by heavy commercial vehicles far outpaces the funding they contribute through gas taxes. Such vehicles pay $.03 per mile, but cost $.26 per mile.
- Change TxDOT protocols to allow for an agreed upon change to a driveway should traffic conditions change.
- Require that new APOs have enough right of way purchased to construct acceleration or decelerations lanes.
- Commission a study to establish a Pricing Model for Pavement
Suffice it to say that the health risks of breathing APO dust are voluminous.
Short-term exposure can result in coughing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest and irritation of the eyes.
Long-term exposure can result in reduced lung function, and respiratory diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, emphysema, impairment of brain development, low birth weight, lung cancer, stroke, aggravation of existing lung disease, and death.
OSHA, MSHA and other agencies responsible for worker health continue to reduce allowable exposure levels for labor; these same reduced exposure levels should be applied to the general population as well, says the report.
Testimony from those living near APOs who have been affected by the decline in air quality demonstrates that regular regional air-quality monitoring is insufficient. So, TCEQ does not know what the actual, real-time particulate concentrations are in the air near APOs.
- Require APOs to set up onsite monitoring.
- Commission a study to determine cumulative effects of adjacent mines, each outputting a compliant level.
- Modify the TCEQ permitting process to include county commissioners, municipal authorities and others.
This is a bigger problem in the Hill County than Houston. So I will skip it here.
APO’s can suddenly cease operation for a number of reasons: bankruptcy, depleted assets, decline in demand, etc. While sites can never be returned to their original condition, they CAN be restored for safe, alternative uses.
At a minimum, this means removing hazardous materials and industrial equipment, and sloping walls to avoid leaving dangerous collapses.
- Require APO to file a reclamation/restoration plan.
- Require operators to post a Surety Bond to cover all reclamation costs in the event the operator fails to reclaim disturbed lands.
- Address all potential future safety and environmental problems (fugitive dust, erosion, etc.) in reclamation plans.
Distance from Adjoining Property
Current regulations depend on the type of facility and the type of equipment in use. This makes regulations complex and difficult to interpret.
- Revise permits to define setbacks by the distance from the APO property line rather than the specific piece of equipment.
- Require a setback of 880 yards for concrete batch plants.
- Establish setback rules for all APOs that treat platted subdivisions as residential areas.
The committee found inconsistent groundwater conservation rules around the state. Many counties did not even have Groundwater Conservation Districts, or if they did, they could not assess the cumulative regional impact of APOs on water supply. Historic APO water use data is not readily available to the public.
- The Texas Water Development Board should complete an in-depth assessment of APO water use.
- Study future water supply, especially for the Houston area, where sedimentation threatens Lake Houston.
- Require APOs to recirculate groundwater to conserve groundwater resources.
The committee found that TCEQ regulations for APOs are less rigorous than for other types of surface mining enforced by the Railroad Commission.
APOs construct ponds based on their preferred ‘best management practice,’ often without rigorous engineering or regulatory inspection. Testimony from neighbors indicated sediment-laden discharge damaged property. TCEQ found that nearly half (42%) of APO enforcement actions (not related to registration) were due to noncompliance with water-quality rules.
Groundwater pollution by APOs is also a legitimate concern.
- Require Texas APOs to comply with requirements for Texas coal and uranium mines.
- Improve rules and regulatory processes to provide a higher level of protection from pollution by APOs.
- Provide more robust and frequent groundwater inspections.
- Perform dye-trace studies to determine groundwater flow-paths in areas close to major water wells.
Sedimentation and Flooding
The committee found sand mining along the San Jacinto River to be one of the contributors of excess sedimentation. It also aggravated flooding issues in Montgomery and Harris Counties during and after Hurricane Harvey.
Also, “The result of partitioning large areas of the floodway from rising floodwaters by levees and dikes can result in increased flooding of adjacent areas. Flood-induced breaches in levees can also add to the problems of flooding and sedimentation downstream.”
Unfortunately, breaches and unauthorized discharges are sometimes left unreported and unrepaired unless citizens file reports to the TCEQ. Even when violations have been documented by the TCEQ, fines have been minimal, averaging ~$800/violation from 2013-2017. Worse, the TCEQ inspects mines only once every two years for the first six years, and then once every three years thereafter.
The committee also found that in-river mining has continued along the West Fork of the San Jacinto even though no permits have been granted by TPWD. TPWD enforcement appears to be lax. “Thus, it is likely regulations will have little or no effect on in-river mining.”
- Adopt best management practices for APOs similar to those found in other states.
- Minimize or restrict new mining in floodways, floodplains and channel migration zones.
- Prohibit mining in floodways unless it can be shown that the mine would not increase ANY flood levels.
- Locate stockpiles outside floodways.
- Minimize damage to stream banks and riparian vegetation by implementing erosion control requirements during construction, mining and post mining phases.
- Establish minimum buffer zones between pits, streams, adjacent properties, public water supplies and domestic water wells.
- Establish minimum widths and slopes for protective levees to avoid breaches.
- Prohibit mining below the depth of the adjacent channel bottom to minimize potential for pit capture.
- Regularly monitor water-quality both from surface sampling and aerial surveillance during the active mining phase and at regular intervals after mine abandonment.
The report found that municipalities (as opposed to counties) already have the power to require minimum buffers in Public Health and Safety requirements and nuisance abatement ordinances. The committee specifically cited the City of Houston. But much mining remains outside of municipalities. So it recommended granting authority to counties to establish setbacks between incompatible land uses and to regulate water wells to avoid possible groundwater contamination.
Lack of Industry Cooperation
This report began by acknowledging the need for balance. However, it ended by complaining about the lack of industry cooperation.
For instance, TACA claimed that pushing facilities father from where products are needed will “add a tremendous amount of cost.” When the committee tried to investigate such economic claims, TACA refused to document them. The committee then reached out to trade groups in other states to substantiate TACA’s claims. However, all those groups refused to respond or simply ignored the requests.
That led to one final recommendation. Should concerns about the potential economic consequences become substantiated by reputable data, the legislature should institute a “Best Practices Compliance Incentive Program.”
Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/26/2021
1246 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.