Tag Archive for: white water

Liberty Materials Sand Mine Built in Floodway, Floodplains, But Flooding Not Likely Cause of Breach

A Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) investigation into the mysterious white water on the West Fork, focused on sand mining upstream. TCEQ cited Liberty Materials for allegedly discharging 56 million gallons of milky-white water into the West Fork.

The mine’s manager said he “didn’t have a clue” about when, why, or how one of the mine’s pits lost 4 feet of water. A water sample showed nearly 25 times the normal amount of dissolved solids.

West Fork on November 4, 2019. It angles from left to right. Spring Creek, by contrast comes from top to bottom.
Color of the water on November 4, 2019 on the West Fork San Jacinto, about a half mile upstream from US59.

The Liberty Materials mine, like virtually all of the mines on the West Fork, sits in the floodway and floodplain. It’s a mile and a half wide and almost three miles long. About a 1000 acres altogether.

San Jacinto West Fork is white ribbon cutting diagonally through image. Floodway = Cross-hatched area. 100-Year Flood Plain = aqua. 500-Year Flood Plain = Brown. Source: FEMA’s national flood hazard layer viewer.

That’s a lot of sand and sediment exposed to the ravages of floodwater.

But the irony in this case is that there was no flood immediately before the breaches.

The gage at State Highway 242 near the Liberty mine shows 2.4 inches of rain during a 3 day period starting six days before the white-water incident.

Rainfall at SH242 and San Jacinto West Form from October 27 through November 3, 2019. Source: HarrisCountyFWS.org.
Late October rainfall caused the West Fork to rise about 3 feet, but the river had another 18 feet to rise before flooding.

That amount of rainfall caused the river to rise about 3 feet. But it was still 18 feet away from flooding!

Alternative Breach Scenarios

So if flooding didn’t do it, how did the water get out of the mine? One possibility is that the terrain funneled rainwater into the pond and caused it to overflow. The overflow then started a fissure which widened into the Grand Canyon of the West Fork.

Several mining engineers suggested other alternative scenarios:

  • Industrial sabotage by a disgruntled employee
  • Liquefaction of the sand around the perimeter of pits as they filled with rainwater
  • A heavy truck driving over sand about to liquify
  • They needed to clean out the pond and intentionally lowered the level
  • Needed purer water to create acceptable frack sand
  • “The Boss Made Me Do It”, possibly related to one of the two points above

I’m not saying there was a deliberate breach, but we’ve seen it happen before.

“Dunno What Happened!”

The mine manager interviewed by the TCEQ claims he doesn’t know when, why, or how the breach happened. Yet it caused a four-foot drop in the level of a major pond for more than a week.

To paraphrase the famous quote from Hamlet, “Methinks, the man professes ignorance too much.” By that I mean, the denials cause him to lose credibility. If your swimming pool suddenly dropped four feet, wouldn’t you want to know the cause?

His responses hint that something else is going on here. We may never know what. Despite tens of millions of gallons of pollution being poured into the West Fork, these cases rarely go to trial.

All the more reason to establish greater setbacks from rivers for sand mines.

The state legislature needs to make it more difficult for “accidents” like these to happen.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/2/2019

825 Days after Hurricane Harvey

October Aerial Photos of Liberty Materials Mine Show Evidence of Previous Breaches

Yesterday, I posted the results of a TCEQ investigation into the Liberty Materials sand mine in Conroe. TCEQ alleged that the mine discharged 56 million gallons of white milky pollution into the West Fork of the San Jacinto. They also found that a water sample taken at the mine contained almost 25X the normal level of dissolved solids. The report mentions four other recent investigations that resulted in citations for unauthorized discharges.

October Flyover Shows Other Discharges At Same Mine

Today, I reviewed aerial photos of the mine that I took on a flyover in October, before the alleged unauthorized discharge.

Note the color of water in two ponds at the Liberty site. All photos taken on 10/2/2019.
Mine in background and West Fork in foreground. Notice discharge despite attempt to plug leak.
Same breach from opposite angle
Another breach almost looks like it was designed to funnel water into the river.
In addition to the major breaches above, note a smaller breach here...
…and the water escaping from the pond alongside the road. Those pipes running along the river sure do make it hard for canoeists and kayakers to get downstream.

More Than a Dozen Discharges Seen on One Day

The TCEQ cited Liberty for 4 previous unauthorized discharges in the last 2.5 years. Had they visited the mine on October 2nd, they might have found that many violations in one day.

And these weren’t the only breaches I found that day. Counting those at other mines on the East and West Forks, TCEQ could have easily tallied another dozen violations on this one day.

Sad to say, this industry has an abysmal health and safety record.

To track the status of TCEQ cases near you, check out this section of their web site.

Posted by Bob Rehak on December 2, 2019

825 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 74 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 Cites Sand Mine for Allegedly Discharging 56 Million Gallons of White Pollution into West Fork

After receiving complaints and news reports of bright white water in the West Fork of the San Jacinto, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) launched aerial and ground investigations.

West Fork near US59 bridge. Photo taken 11/4/2019.

They found three mines discharging process water into the West Fork of the San Jacinto.

  • Sorters-Eagle Mine, used as Placement Area #2 by the Army Corps, at 231 McClellan Road in Kingwood
  • RGI Materials at 18185 Hill Road in Porter
  • Liberty Materials at 19515 Moorhead Road in Conroe

The Corps found that the discharge from the Eagle-Sorters mine was related to equipment installed by the Corps which is being removed. Therefore, the TCEQ considered it a permitted discharge and did not issue a Notice of Enforcement.

The other two mines, however, were different stories. The TCEQ issued Notices of Enforcement to both for alleged unauthorized discharges of process water.

Double Breach at RGI

At RGI, TCEQ investigators found that a process wastewater pond breached into a stormwater pond. That, in turn, breached into the West Fork. (Click the link above to see the complete investigation report.) Investigators cited the mine for one alleged violation for failure to prevent the unauthorized discharge of process water. The same mine already had one active notice of enforcement for a violation that allegedly occurred on 10/2/2019.

Loss of 56-Million Gallons of Milky-White Waste Water Goes Unnoticed

At Liberty Materials, TCEQ investigators found a 6′ deep by 30′ wide berm breach still discharging process wastewater when they arrived. The initial burst of wastewater had spread out more than 90 feet and had matted down vegetation for 850 feet. The water then entered a gully which emptied into the West Fork. Investigators say the discharge was milky white in color. They also say that water marks indicate the process pond had dropped approximately 3 to 4 feet!

Unauthorized discharge of white process water by Liberty mine on 11/6. Photographed by TCEQ.

Surprisingly, investigators had to notify the operator of the breach. He professed ignorance of it.

The TCEQ cited the mine for unauthorized discharge of pollutants. Their 124-page report makes interesting reading. The investigators collected numerous samples of water and tested for total dissolved solids.

They found one sample contained almost 25X more than the standard limit for dissolved solids in that part of the river.

From Page 100 of the TCEQ investigation of Liberty Material’s Moorhead Plant on 11/6/2019.

They also estimate that a four-foot water drop in the process pond would have dumped more than 56 million gallons of pollution into the West Fork.

“Not Sure. Don’t Know. No Clue. Duh!”

A “must-read” is the interview with one of the mine’s managers on pages 113-114. Some excepts:

  • When did the berm breach occur? Answer: Not sure.
  • How did it occur? Answer: Not sure.
  • Do you have maintenance logs for berm repairs? Answer: Don’t keep them.
  • What happened to the berm of the missing pond? Answer: No clue.
  • When did the berm go? No clue.
  • How did the berm go? No clue.
  • How much did you discharge? Not sure.

Are we really to believe that a competent manager would not notice the loss of four feet of water in his process pond?

Incident Highlights Two Problems

Nowhere does the report say that the milky white discharge that I photographed further downriver two days before this investigation came from this mine. In that sense, the findings of these investigations probably will not satisfy the public’s passion for closure.

But they do shine a spotlight on two problems.

Problem #1:

This was the sixth alleged violation for the Liberty mine on Moorehead in 2.5 years. They allegedly dumped 56 million gallons of pollution into the West Fork without noticing it and played dumb when investigators caught them in the act. They just do not fear the penalties which have averaged $800 per incident statewide since 2011. At that rate, pollution becomes part of miners’ business plans.

Problem #2:

TACA kills almost all attempts at reasonable regulation by bottling the proposals up in committee every legislature.

Business Friendly Vs. Resident Hostile

I cannot understand how state government allows such flagrant behavior to continue. A teenager who got caught breaking into cars six times in 2.5 years would be heading to Huntsville. Dump 56,000,000 gallons of pollution in a public drinking-water source and you get the equivalent of a speeding ticket. All you have to say to the judge evidently is, “Duh!”, and you’re right back in business.

Go figure. Why does “business-friendly” have to mean “resident-hostile”?

Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/1/2019 with thanks to the TCEQ

824 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.

Fox 26 Finds San Jacinto West Fork Still Flowing White; Source of Pollution Still Not Identified

Last Monday I photographed white water in the West Fork. Alarmed by what I saw, I sent photos to the TCEQ and SJRA. Then I posted about it last night. Fox 26 saw the post and decided to do some of its own investigating.

San Jacinto River running white has the Hallett sand mine on the West Fork. Photo taken on 11/4/2019.

Fox News Investigates Further

Today, Fox called for an interview. The reporter, Ivory Hecker, also called the TCEQ, the San Jacinto River Authority and Houston Public Works Department. Everybody, it seems is now investigating. Chuck Gilman of the SJRA says he has never seen anything like it.

Meanwhile, the river is still running white. Not AS white, but nothing like its normal color. Fox sent its own helicopter up today and documented a definite discoloration.

Here’s a link to Ms. Hecker’s segment on Fox. I include it here not because it contains an interview with me, but because it contains the results of her own investigation and interviews with others. It also has helicopter footage taken this afternoon showing that the river is still running white, albeit a dirtier white.

So far this week, the TCEQ, SJRA, and City of Houston have all launched investigations. None has reported results yet.

What Causes Color in Water

China has a Yellow River. Wyoming and Utah have a Green River. Colorado has a Blue River. And of course, Texas and Oklahoma share a Red River. Here’s an article about what makes water different colors. They include runoff, chemical spills, reflected light, color temperature, suspended particles, dissolved minerals, you name it. But the article never once mentions WHITE.

In happier times – Pre-Harvey – I drove to the Arctic Circle and photographed spectacular scenery along the way. In Alberta, Canada, I photographed some of the most intensely blue water I have ever seen anywhere. Given the pristine alpine location, you might think the lake in the photo below was naturally blue.

It’s not. Water is a clear colorless liquid. Things IN it give it color. The intense blue in the water below comes from the way suspended “rock flour” from the glaciers refracts light. Still, I’ll take it over San Jacinto white water any day.

In the mountains above Canmore, Alberta.

Best Theory so Far

According to Fox, Houston Public Works suspects the color is caused by suspended sediment from a sand mine. Although both of the mines I flew by on Monday were discharging water from their pits directly into the river, we just need to wait and see what water tests show and whether the discharges I witnessed had been permitted by the TCEQ.

The water was also white upstream from the two mines I photographed – just not as white. So it’s possible those two mines were not even involved. We should not jump to conclusions.

Better Ways to Monitor

Several things are certain at this point, however. Flyovers once every two years by the TCEQ are insufficient to catch issues like this. LandSat flies over Houston 18 times a day. It’s hard for taxpayers to understand why the TCEQ doesn’t use the satellite imagery that the federal government is already collecting anyway. It could provide a higher level of protection at a lower cost. I posed the same question last November to the TCEQ and never received a satisfactory answer.

Second, I have been told that there are ways to monitor the Total Suspended Solid (TSS) concentration in water above and below sand mines. Such gages would make a great way to narrow down the source of pollution and stop it quickly. The SJRA could and should demand such monitoring as part of the price of mining sand near its river banks.

Parting Thought

It’s also hard for people who pay sky-high, City-of-Houston water bills to understand why we allow people to dump things in the drinking water of two million people that raise our treatment costs. It just doesn’t seem right regardless of your politics.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11.8.19

801 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post are 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.