Willful Blindness and Sand Mines
Fifty-one weeks ago, I woke to find:
- Sand dunes up to ten feet high covering 30 acres of East End Park.
- Sand five feet deep covering large parts of River Grove Park.
- A giant dune more than ten feet high blocking a drainage ditch that empties the western third of Kingwood.
- Sand reaching treetops at the West Lake Houston Parkway Bridge that kept water from flowing under it.
- Sand almost completely blocking the West Fork where it meets Lake Houston and below the Kingwood Country Club.
- Almost half of area businesses flooded.
- 7000 area homes damaged or destroyed.
Millions of Cubic Yards of Sand Trigger Willful Blindness Overnight
Millions of cubic yards of sand clogged the river and it all appeared virtually overnight. This much sand doesn’t come from a broken silt fence at a construction site or even erosion from a drainage ditch. Thus began my search for answers…and this blog.
Within days, I flew up and down the East and West Forks of the San Jacinto, taking pictures and trying to find a possible source for so much sand. It seemed so obvious to me: sand mines – twenty square miles of them. But then the naked earth revealed a naked truth about humankind – willful blindness.
People make money from sand. And not just miners. Developers, home builders, road builders, contractors, cities, counties, states, retailers. Sand fuels growth and almost everyone benefits from growth. So when groups like TACA spin fanciful tales about the environmental benefits of sand mining, how sand mines prevent flooding, and how mines trap sediment, they find a receptive audience of the willfully blind.
Omission of Key Facts
In each case, the spinmeisters begin with an element of truth to tinge their tales with credibility. However, they omit key facts.
- Sand mines can be turned into wetlands, they say. (But are they?)
- Sand mines can retain water in a flood, they say. (When their dikes don’t rupture.)
- Sand mines can trap sediment, they say. (Except when the river is rushing through them at 130,000 cubic feet per second.)
- Sand supports growth, they say. (Not mentioning its contribution to flooding.)
- Sand came from Spring Creek, they say. (As if none came from the West Fork, and ignoring the East Fork.)
- Brown & Root found more suspended solids in Cypress Creek, they say. (20 years ago, before sand mines lined the West Fork.)
- Sand miners want to be part of the solution, they say. (While locating mines in the floodway.)
Such comforting statements capitalize on willful blindness. People WANT to believe them, in part, because they profit and in part because they exonerate themselves. Digging into the omissions might implicate them in someone else’s misfortune. And besides, it would mean a lot of work.
Willful Blindness as a Legal Concept
In the law, willful blindness describes a person who seeks to avoid liability by intentionally keeping himself or herself unaware of facts. Google “willful blindness” and you’ll find dozens of books on the subject. Here’s a TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan, who wrote one of the definitive books on the subject. Ironically, the subject of her talk is a small Montana town with a large environmental problem. As you listen to her, you may be reminded of conversations you have heard in the Lake Houston Area.
I’ve never said that sand mines were responsible for all of the sediment clogging our rivers. I acknowledge the contributions of other sources. However, in order to reduce sedimentation to its natural rate, TACA, sand mines and the legislature must acknowledge and address problems where they exist. As we seek to find money to dredge the river, we should also find ways to reduce discharges from sand mines to manage costs and avoid future disasters.
I would suggest that following best practices commonly accepted in other states and countries would be a good starting point for debate.
As always, these are my opinions on matters of public policy, protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP statute of the Great State of Texas.
Posted by Bob Rehak on August 28, 2018
364 Days since Hurricane Harvey Flooded the Lake Houston Area