Tag Archive for: injunction

Sand Mine Continues to Push Its Luck by Mining Over and Between Pipelines

Last year, the flood during Tropical Storm Imelda washed out the sand supporting a natural gas pipeline running across an easement through the Triple PG Sand Mine in Porter. Luckily, Kinder Morgan (KM) shut the line down before anyone was hurt. KM then drilled 75 feet under the mine and spliced in a new section. But now Triple PG is mining over the new section, once again eroding the the public’s margin of safety.

Of course, it’s possible that the miners won’t get down to 75 feet. But TACA and some West Fork sand mines say they routinely mine 100 feet down.

Eroding Margin of Safety

Just as bad, they’re mining toward five pipelines carrying highly volatile liquids (HVL), potentially exposing them in the next flood, just like they were on the West Fork at the LMI River Road Mine.

The Kinder Morgan natural gas line runs diagonally between the trees in the foreground, parallel to helicopter skid in the lower left. Five HVL pipelines run in the utility corridor in the background.
Here’s how that same area looked after Imelda on 9/27/2019, when Caney Creek (right) had flowed through the mine.

Shortly before Harvey, the sand mine started mining next to the road cutting diagonally from top left to bottom right. Then, Harvey flowed through the mine, creating much of the erosion you see here.

Two years later, Imelda cut through the mine again, extending the erosion headward to the point where it could threaten the HVL pipelines in the utility corridor near the top of the frame above during the next flood.

In two years, the headward erosion cut toward the pipelines by 2000 feet.

Triple PG Already Operating Under Injunction

The sand mine sits at the confluence of two floodways and floods repeatedly.

On October 11, 2019, the State Attorney General at the request of the TCEQ, filed a temporary restraining order and temporary injunction against the sand mine. Repeated breaches of its dikes which had gone unrepaired allowed process wastewater to escape directly into the headwaters of Lake Houston. The issue even became part of the last Mayoral campaign when Tony Buzbee picked it up.

A Travis County Court set a trial date for 6/22/2020, but the trail has been delayed by COVID. Shortly after the Attorney General filed his suit, the owner of the mine, a cardiologist from Nacogdoches, tried to transfer ownership within his family’s companies and trusts.

The attorney general wound up suing all of them and the cardiologist’s attorney petitioned to withdraw from the case as counsel – a highly unusual move.

The case is still pending trial. Until then, the mine continues to operate under an injunction which prohibits it from dredging, but not dry mining.

Source: Travis County Clerk
Source: Travis County Clerk as of 9/30/2020

2020 will certainly go down in history as the year of living dangerously. A miner trying to push his luck is just one more thing we shouldn’t have to worry about…especially when he’s sitting on top of a huge stockpile of sand that he has barely touched in months.

No one has died yet. Hopefully they won’t. But if they do, it won’t take long for a lawyer to argue negligence and triple damages for the Triple PG owners. Of course, they will then likely declare bankruptcy and tuck tail back to Nacogdoches.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 9/30/2020

1128 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 377 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 Alleges Fourth Unauthorized Discharge in 10 Months at Triple PG Mine

In March, ReduceFlooding.com published pictures of the Triple PG sand mine pumping water onto adjoining properties near White Oak Creek. The TCEQ investigated within days. Today, they reported their findings and issued a Notice of Enforcement for the unauthorized discharge of process water. The discharge also appears to violate terms of the Attorney General’s injunction against the mine and could result in the AG seeking additional fines up to $25,000 per day for discharges at apparently lasted three months.

Mine process wastewater flooding neighboring properties in upper right. Picture taken Jan 20, 2020.
Mine process wastewater flooding neighboring properties in foreground. Picture taken Feb. 13, 2020.
Triple PG wastewater on neighboring properties on March 6, 2020. See water in strip of trees in front of stockpile.

TCEQ Report on Compliance Investigation

TCEQ observed process water outside Triple PG’s property boundary and concluded, “The allegation of a discharge of process water was confirmed. As a result of the investigation conducted on March 11, 2020, one alleged violation was noted for failure to prevent the discharge of process water.” That was the fourth such finding in five years for the mine.

TCEQ says in part, “Because process water was located outside of the facility’s property boundary with a high likelihood to enter waters of the state, an unauthorized discharge had occurred.”

676% Higher Levels of Suspended Sediment than Creek Water

Wastewater was overflowing from Ponds Five and Six. Analysis of water samples showed that the overflow had levels of suspended solids in it that were 137% to 676% higher than the background level found upstream in White Oak Creek. That’s more than 2X to almost 8X above the creek water.

Discharge Not Authorized

Both TCEQ rules and the terms of the injunction prohibit any discharges of process water not authorized by the TCEQ.

The Notice of Enforcement issued by the TCEQ on 4/3/2020 cites, “Unauthorized discharge of process water: Specifically, during the investigation conducted on March 11, 2020, process water was noted outside the property boundary of Triple PG Sand Development Facility with the likelihood to enter waters of the state.”

Recommended corrective action? TCEQ simply says, “There shall be NO unauthorized discharge of pollutants.”

Additional Fines Possible

The Texas Water Code Section 7.102 allows fines up to $25,000 per day for each day of a continuing violation. See flooded neighboring properties above in January, February and March flyover photos.

That water was building up and flooding adjoining properties for at least three months. This could get expensive for Triple PG!

The Attorney General’s office did not respond yet to a request for comment about the type of penalties that it would seek, if any.

Fourth Unauthorized Discharge in Last Year

TCEQ has conducted eight other investigations at Triple PG in the previous 5 years. They included investigations into:

  • Failure to renew their registration
  • Alleged failure to maintain pollution prevention measures and controls
  • Failure to maintain a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan (SWP3)
  • Unauthorized discharge of process water (three times since May 2019)

This makes the fourth citation for unauthorized discharges in a year.

Editorial Comment: This mine just doesn’t seem to take the TCEQ, Attorney General, State of Texas or the health of their neighbors seriously. I hope the Attorney General shuts them down.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/6/2020

951 Days after Hurricane Harvey and 200 after 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.

EPA Suspends Enforcement of Pollution Rules During Virus Epidemic

The EPA has suspended normal enforcement of air and water pollution rules during the corona virus epidemic. Critics fear it could cause more deaths. They also fear that rules forced through during the emergency could hamper future pollution control efforts. Specifically, a new, broadened rule would limit use of research based on confidential health information in regulatory decisions.

Full Text of EPA Memo

This 7-page memo from the EPA outlines the new policy. It says, the EPA will “generally not seek stipulated or other penalties for noncompliance…” The thrust of the memo: EPA is counting on industry to self-report violations. If violations relate to worker shortages due to the virus, EPA will not seek penalties. EPA will also give offenders time to remedy the situation.

Reaction from Interceptor

Sharon Lerner writes in The Interceptor that “EPA IS JAMMING THROUGH ROLLBACKS THAT COULD INCREASE CORONAVIRUS DEATHS.” The article cites the case of a Pasadena refinery exceeding benzene emission limits. It also cites problems in St. Johns, Louisiana. St. John reportedly has the highest cancer risk from air pollutants in the country. Area residents are routinely exposed to dozens of air pollutants, including the carcinogen chloroprene.

Residents worry that their weakened immune response from the chemicals will make them even more susceptible to the virus.

Review by New York Times

Lisa Friedman writes in The New York Times that “E.P.A., Citing Coronavirus, Drastically Relaxes Rules for Polluters.” The EPA, says the article, will focus during the outbreak “on situations that may create an acute risk or imminent threat to public health or the environment” and said it would exercise “discretion” in enforcing other environmental rules. In other words, they will focus primarily on the worst cases.

Ms. Friedman interviewed former EPA administrators. Gina McCarthy, who led the E.P.A. under the Obama administration and now serves as president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it “an open license to pollute.” Cynthia Giles, who headed the E.P.A. enforcement division during the Obama administration, said: “This is essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules. It is so far beyond any reasonable response. I am just stunned.”

A current spokesperson for the EPA, Andrea Woods, disagreed. “For situations outside of routine monitoring and reporting,” she said, “the agency has reserved its authorities and will take the pandemic into account on a case-by-case basis.”

Protest by 21 Environmental and Watchdog Groups

Meanwhile, Rebecca Beitsch reports in The Hill that “Coalition petitions EPA for disclosure as agency OKs suspension of environmental monitoring.” She says, “Environmental groups have characterized the memo as a license to pollute, as companies will not have to submit regular reports to the EPA showing they are not violating environmental laws.” She cites a petition spearheaded by the Natural Resources Defense Council which was signed by 21 environmental and watchdog groups. “We fully appreciate the disruption and harm caused by the COVID‐19 pandemic. But EPA’s unprecedented non‐enforcement policy creates a clear opportunity for abuse,” states the petition.

LA Times Reports on Reaction by California Officials

The Los Angeles Times reports in an article by Susanne Rust, Louis Sahagun and Rosanna Xia. “Citing coronavirus, EPA suspends enforcement of environmental laws.” The LA Times article focuses on the response of California officials. “The severity of the COVID-19 crisis should not be used as an excuse by the EPA to relax enforcement of federal environmental laws designed to protect public health and safety,” said Serge Dedina, mayor of Imperial Beach. His city, on the Mexican border, is under constant siege from pollution. “This crisis has only underscored why protecting public health and safety and our environment is more critical than ever.”

Is EPA Using Crisis as Cover to Make Concessions to Polluters?

Vox in an article by By Zeeshan Aleem claimed that “The EPA appears to be using coronavirus to make huge concessions to polluters.” It says the rule will remain in place indefinitely. And it gives factories, power plants, and other major polluters tremendous discretion. Now they can decide whether or not the coronavirus will prevent them from meeting legal requirements on air and water pollution and hazardous waste management. “Many experts and environmental advocates say that while case-by-case relaxation of rules for companies that are short-staffed due to the pandemic makes sense, the expansiveness of the EPA’s directive appears both unprecedented and designed to give a green light to polluters to act recklessly at a time when air quality is acutely important for public health.”

Other Reaction from Around the Country

For additional perspectives see:

Business Insider: The Environmental Protection Agency says it won’t enforce its own rules during the coronavirus pandemic.

USA Today: EPA suspends some public health monitoring and enforcement because of coronavirus crisis.

Texas Tribune: Citing coronavirus pandemic, Trump administration stops enforcing environmental laws.

CBS News: “An open license to pollute”: Trump administration indefinitely suspends some environmental protection laws during coronavirus pandemic.

An Associated Press Article in Marketwatch: Citing coronavirus, EPA has stopped enforcing environmental laws

The list goes on. A google search returned 11,800,000 results.

Will TCEQ Follow EPA Lead?

To say this is controversial would be an understatement.

At the very time when people’s lives and health are threatened by the virus, the EPA is dialing back enforcement of pollution rules that protect their lives and health.

At best, you could characterize the reaction to the new rule as “practical” given new constrictions we all operate under.

But, like the national press, I worry that this is part of a broader effort to dial back enforcement against polluters. We see examples of pollution threats right here in the Lake Houston area almost every month. And we saw them before the pandemic.

The day the West Fork ran white. TCEQ alleges Liberty Materials mine upstream dumped 56 million gallons of process water into the San Jacinto.
Aerial photo taken March 6 shows neighboring properties in foreground flooded by process water from the Triple PG mine in Porter, Tx. This process water migrated through the forest into the floodplain of White Oak Creek which ultimately leads to Lake Houston and the drinking water of 2 million people.

It will be interesting to see how the TCEQ reacts to the new EPA stance. Will they fall in line? I expect their report on the latest concerns about the Triple PG mine on Friday. The mine allegedly violated the terms of a temporary injunction in its case with the Texas Attorney General. Stay tuned.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/1/2020

946 Days after Hurricane Harvey

Triple PG Sand Mine Agrees to Terms of Restraining Order

The Triple PG Sand Mine in Porter has agreed to the terms of a restraining order. The order will force the mine owner to build dikes that can withstand the force of future rains and that can prevent future discharges of process wastewater into the City of Houston’s drinking water.

Repeated breach in dike of Triple PG Sand Mine that allowed process water to mingle with water in Caney Creek (lower left).

Certification by Licensed Professional Engineer Required

Furthermore, according to the agreement, a licensed, professional engineer must certify that the dikes can withstand the force of future rains. No more building dikes out of sand. Given where the mine is located – at the confluence of two floodways – it’s not clear whether future breaches are 100% avoidable. It’s also unclear whether a professional engineer would put his or her reputation on the line with such a promise given this particular mine’s history and location.

Southern Perimeter Lacks Effective Dikes

The entire southern perimeter of the mine is flush with the land south of the mine. There appear to be no dikes. So this could be a massive construction job. Dozens of homes south of the mine flooded during Imelda. Debris and damage patterns suggest that floodwaters entered their homes directly from the mine, not from White Oak or Caney Creeks.

The back of Tom Gill’s garage above faces the Triple PG mine. Scouring from the direction of the mine indicates which direction floodwaters came from.
Debris washed away from mine in Walden Woods subdivision south of it.

Background of Case

In May and again in September, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) reported that multiple breaches in dikes at the Triple PG Sand Mine on Caney Creek led to the escape of process water and sediment into the City of Houston’s drinking water supply. The TCEQ had previously cited the mine for similar environmental violations in 2015.

As a result of leaving the breaches open for prolonged periods, the Texas Attorney General sued the mine earlier this month. If the suit is successful, Triple PG could be liable for penalties exceeding $1 million.

Goals of Attorney General

Two weeks ago, I described what the original petition involved. The AG wants to force the mine to stop alleged pollution of the drinking water of the nation’s fourth largest city.

Both the injunction and restraining orders seek the same things: to get the mine to fix breaches so it stops allegedly emitting process water. The initial focus: sealing the mine off so that process water stops intermingling with drinking water. In the long term, however, the state wants to force the mine to build dikes sufficient to withstand the force of future floodwaters.

Requirements of Restraining Order

The agreed temporary restraining order requires the defendant to:

  • Not engage in any operations at its dredge facility that discharge process wastewater from the defendant’s property
  • Not PRODUCE any process wastewater that must be discharged
  • Immediately begin repairing damaged or breached berms
  • Hydraulically isolate any industrial waste within the mine
  • Halt the influx of water from creeks
  • Halt the outflow of waste from pits
  • Construct the repairs to prevent discharges from pits during future rain events
  • Cease and prevent all discharges of any industrial waste and or process wastewater from the mine into waters of the state
  • Within 14 days, hire a professional engineer to assess whether the berms can permanently prevent future discharges
  • Not destroy records
  • Certify all efforts at compliance, also within 14 days

The amended restraining order reset the date for the hearing on a temporary injunction from October 24 to 28th. The last order again resets the hearing date to November 12th.

So why the restraining orders when the original suit asked for an injunction? Generally, restraining orders are sought as a form of immediate relief while a plaintiff pursues a more permanent injunction, although injunctions can also be temporary.

Full Text of Legal Filings to Date

Below are links to the full text of documents filed to date in the case. I obtained them from the Travis County District Clerk in Austin.

For one PDF that contains all the docs above, click here.

Explanation of “Agreed Order”

Notice the word “agreed” in many of the document titles above. An Agreed Order refers to a written agreement submitted by both parties to a case resolving issues between them.

After rendering decisions, courts will often command counsel for both parties to see if they can come up with wording of an order satisfactory to both. If they can, it becomes an “agreed order,” which the court will then enter. (If not, the judge will formulate his/her own order.

Turning the Tide on the East Fork?

If this sticks, it could change the way Triple PG does business forever. It could also improve life on the East Fork of the San Jacinto for residents who have complained about sediment buildups, flooding, polluted water, loss of riparian vegetation, destruction of wetlands, fish kills, and more.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/31/2019

793 Days after Hurricane Harvey and 42 since Imelda