Shared from the 10/10/2021 Houston Chronicle eEdition



Quarries dump sediment into waterways with little regulation

Kin Man Hui / Staff photographer

Kathleen Wilson says Flat Creek hasn’t been the same since a quarry opened nearby in the Hill Country, where quarries have expanded.

William Luther / Staff photographer
William Luther / Staff photographer

Matthew Macon lives across the Colorado River from a quarry that has been cited for spilling sediment-laden water into the river repeatedly. He says the spills altered the river’s course.

William Luther / Staff photographer

Macon says he lost 90 feet of land to the Colorado River. He has built a new home on his Travis County property farther from the bank. “I had a nice beach down there,” he said. “I had a boat ramp.”


Flat Creek had always been translucent, flowing clear and cold through Kathleen Wilson’s 15-acre spread in the Texas Hill Country.

Then something changed. The dust was the first sign.

“That was really the first noticeable thing, was the whole surface was covered with dust,” said Wilson, 63, who runs an eco-friendly bed and breakfast on the Blanco County property.

Soon, the water was choked with “mucky, nasty stuff,” Wilson said. “It was never dirty before. This is a spring-fed creek.”

The source of the problem: a limestone and caliche quarry 4 miles south of Wilson’s land, near the headwaters of the creek.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has tried and failed repeatedly to stop the quarry from polluting the water. Since the quarry opened in 2016, the environmental agency has cited its operator three times for the same violation: allowing sediment and rock to spill from its property, fouling the creek.

Twice, the quarry, known as the West Henly Site, said it had fixed the problem. Twice, the result was another spill. The TCEQ could have enforced its rules with a financial penalty but never sought to do so.

The creek has never been the same.

The pattern of repeat violations has played out again and again in the Hill Country, a treasured landscape of rolling hills, creeks, rivers, natural springs and striking rock formations across 17 counties.

Hill Country quarries have dumped sediment into waterways and sent plumes of potentially hazardous dust into neighborhoods, a Hearst Newspapers investigation found.

The violations have spoiled pristine waterways and threatened the Edwards Aquifer, the region’s prime source of drinking water. Releases of fine particulate matter have coated cars and homes.

TCEQ enforcement actions can’t be relied on to halt problems. In at least nine documented cases in the Hill Country, the agency has failed to stop repeated infractions as earthen barriers meant to protect rivers have crumbled, dust has blanketed homes and workers have ignored rules put in place to prevent contamination of the aquifer.

Only in rare cases has the state levied financial penalties.

Inspections are infrequent. In the absence of complaints, the TCEQ will inspect a site once every two years in its first six years of operation, and just once every three years after that.

The public is left blind to the scope of problems.

If citizens check whether a quarry has violated state rules, they’ll often find nothing in TCEQ records — even if the quarry is a chronic offender. Under state law, the TCEQ removes any notice of a violation from a quarry’s five-year compliance history after a year has passed.

Quarries are authorized to discharge hazardous dust into the air as their operators blast, dig, move, crush and stockpile exposed rock.

To obtain an air permit in Texas, a quarry is required only to predict how much particulate matter a piece of equipment, such as a rock-crushing machine, will emit, and promise to control the dust and comply with federal air quality standards.

These calculations don’t account for other sources of air pollution on-site, such as the dust produced by blasting and trucks hauling rocks.

If a quarry says on a permit application that it will meet all required conditions, the TCEQ must approve the permit. In the past decade, the agency has denied just nine out of 4,523 applications for equipment at quarries.

The TCEQ doesn’t actually monitor air quality at quarries. The agency operates 76 regional monitoring stations, required by federal law, that measure particulate matter. They’re scattered across the state. The devices are not meant to measure emissions from any particular source. As a result, the TCEQ can’t document how much harmful material was released when dust from a quarry coats nearby homes.

There are more than 1,000 active stone quarries across Texas. The number registered with the state has risen sharply in the last seven years, from 639 in 2013 to 1,056 in 2020.

Their operators clear away trees and blast holes in the earth to dig up and crush rock for the construction of new roads and homes, all to keep up with booming growth as an average of 1,000 people move to Texas every day. The $10 billion industry thrives in the Hill Country, where 142 quarries mine the region for its rich store of limestone and other resources.

“There’s only a certain amount of rock in Texas, and it’s all in one location in the state where we can get good rock for these projects,” said Josh Leftwich, president of the Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association (TACA), an industry group.

The TCEQ asserts that its permitting and enforcement rules are enough to protect human health and the environment. The agency said that in 2013, its inspectors documented at least one violation at 39 percent of the quarries they investigated, and that by 2020, the figure was down to 17 percent.

Over the same period, the TCEQ said the number of investigations increased from 558 per year to 1,568, mainly because there were more quarries. In addition, the Legislature in 2019 required more frequent inspections — once every two years, rather than once every three, during a quarry’s first six years of operation.

When inspectors find a violation, the TCEQ requires the operator to “undertake all corrective action necessary to resolve” it, the agency said in a statement.

‘Scoured and eroded’

On a summer afternoon in Garfield, 17 miles east of Austin, Matthew Macon stood at his property line — right where it plunged 40 feet into the Colorado River.

Just a few years ago, Macon, his wife and their children had a backyard. Now, his back porch lay broken in the muddy water below. Their house, gutted and wrecked by floodwaters, clings to the edge of a cliff.

Macon bought the forested lot in 2005.

“I had land,” said Macon, 46. “I had a nice beach down there. I had a boat ramp that went to the water. That was really nice. You could walk down to the end and go sit down there, put your feet in the water, drink a beer, watch the sunset. In one year, we lost 90 feet — 2015 to 2016.”

Across the river from Macon’s property lies what is now known as the TXI Webberville Sand & Gravel quarry, which opened in 2002. Earthen berms separating the quarry’s mining pits from the river have failed repeatedly, allowing sediment-laden water to spill into the Colorado when it rains, TCEQ records show.

In 2005, the year Macon moved into his house overlooking the Colorado, the TCEQ received complaints that the Webberville quarry was pumping water from a mining pit, and that its berms had altered the course of the river and caused erosion on the opposite bank.

An investigator found no violations and concluded that “natural river system dynamics” had caused the erosion.

In 2007, the TCEQ received another complaint that the quarry was pumping “muddy water” into the river, again causing the opposite bank to erode. This time, a TCEQ investigator found breaches in three berms at the site, as well as a “side channel” leading from a mining pit to the river.

The TCEQ also found that the quarry was pumping water from a mining pit through a pipe and into a creek that fed into the river.

The damage to the waterway was visible.

“The edge of the bank was scoured and eroded due to the high velocity of water exiting the pipe,” the investigator wrote.

The TCEQ again concluded that “natural river system dynamics” had caused the erosion. Still, the agency cited the quarry for the unauthorized discharges and told it to repair the berms and stop pumping water into the creek. Later that year, the site’s operator told the TCEQ it had resolved the issues.

Martin Marietta Inc., a nationwide supplier of building materials, took over the quarry in 2014.

Another TCEQ investigation in 2016 found that berms separating old mining pits from the river “were not fully intact,” causing stormwater in the pits to flood the river repeatedly from 2009 to 2016.

Investigators could not inspect the pits because they were “inundated with water.” A quarry official could not provide the TCEQ any record of steps taken to prevent stormwater pollution at the site. A severe flood in October 2015 had damaged the documents “beyond repair,” he told the agency.

The same flood had pushed the Colorado River over the opposite riverbank and left a foot of mud inside Macon’s home. By 2016, he had lost his backyard to the water below.

The TCEQ cited the quarry for failing to put into effect a storm-water pollution prevention plan and requested that it document how it would do so.

The TCEQ could have elevated the issue to a notice of enforcement, a compliance tool intended for “serious or continuing violations.” A notice of enforcement authorizes the TCEQ to seek penalties to deter future violations, either through administrative action or a civil lawsuit. But no such action was taken against the Webberville site, according to its compliance history report.

Martin Marietta declined to comment for this article.

Despite its 2016 violation, the quarry has a perfect TCEQ compliance history from September 2015 to August 2020 — at least officially.

Breaches that allow water to flow from abandoned mine pits upset a river’s natural “sediment budget” and can cause erosion and increased flooding, said Bill Dupre, a professor of geology and sedimentology at the University of Houston.

Breaches also cause rivers to change course, he said.

“When you change the sediment budget, you change the equilibrium of the river,” Dupre said. “Rivers erode naturally, but if you find that it’s increasing and suddenly you lose a bridge or a house, then it’s no longer just an academic question.”

To Macon, the river today is unrecognizable.

Standing beside his abandoned home on the edge of his property, he pointed to where the wide, muddy water snaked abruptly west. Fifteen years earlier, the Colorado ran straight in that area — a past captured by historical Google Earth imagery.

Macon since has built a new house a little farther back from the crumbling bank. He said he has never considered suing the quarry for the loss of his land.

“Their lawyers are better than my lawyers,” he said. “It’s the golden rule. They’ve got the gold.”

‘Can I pass this legislation?’

In the last two sessions of the Legislature, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has tried to enact more stringent rules for quarries. But the concrete and aggregates industry has smothered the initiative twice.

The inertia is galling to state Rep. Terry Wilson, a retired Army colonel and conservative Republican from Marble Falls in Burnet County. Last year, Wilson served as chair of a House study committee that published a 65-page report on aggregate production operations.

“I was hoping that we would identify the best practices,” Wilson said. “And by saying, ‘Hey, if this is the industry’s best practices, then why don’t we make that the threshold in terms of the standard?’ ”

Burnet County is home to 16 active stone quarries. The TCEQ cited one of them, Capitol Aggregates Delta Materials, in March 2017 for failing to implement a stormwater pollution prevention plan.

Eight months later, not only had the berm not been extended, it had collapsed. Sediment from the site had spilled into a tributary of Backbone Creek, and other berms at the quarry had failed due to “poor design, installation and maintenance,” an investigation report said.

Capitol Aggregates, which is headquartered in San Antonio, later told the TCEQ it had repaired the berms, and the compliance case was closed.

The company’s president, Greg Hale, sat on Wilson’s study committee, along with David Perkins, a former president of the industry group TACA who is now vice president of government affairs for Lehigh Hanson Inc., a producer of construction materials.

Both Hale and Perkins refused to sign the committee’s report.

In a letter to Wilson, Hale asserted that the committee had ignored testimony from “industry stakeholders and experts” and had not adequately considered how its recommendations could “greatly hinder economic development.” He also said the recommendations were unsupported by “relevant evidence and data.”

A bill written by Wilson — and co-sponsored by more than 100 lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans — would have incorporated a slew of the report’s recommendations.

Among other measures, House Bill 1912 would have required quarries to ensure the land they mine will be “safe and useful” after operations cease, in part by re-vegetating barren areas to control erosion.

At a hearing on the bill in April, the House environmental regulation committee heard from Mark Friesenhahn, a pecan farmer whose Comal County property was damaged in June 2020 when a retention pond at a limestone quarry spilled mining waste onto his orchard.

“Farmers have a key mission, and that is this: At the end, we strive to leave the land better than we found it,” Friesenhahn told the committee. “We would think that (quarries) would be required to do pretty much the same kind of thing.”

Also testifying that day — against Wilson’s bill — was TACA’s Leftwich.

“I think the rules and requirements that are in place are sufficient and protective of the environment,” he said.

Leftwich told the committee that the TCEQ operates “130” regional air-monitoring stations across the state; the actual number is 76.

After the hearing, House Speaker Dade Phelan held a closed-door meeting of stakeholders, including Wilson, Leftwich and Republicans on the committee, to find areas of compromise. Beyond agreeing to answer more questions at public hearings, TACA wouldn’t budge.

Wilson’s bill never made it out of the committee, a failure he laid at the feet of his fellow Republicans.

Jerry Lara /Staff photographer

A quarry spilled waste onto Mark Friesenhahn’s Comal County pecan orchard. As the co-founder of Texans for Responsible Aggregate Mining, he advocates for stricter regulation of the sites.

Kin Man Hui / Staff photographer

The Servtex Quarry Plant lies at the southern tip of “Quarry Row” in Comal County. Quarries can grow to thousands of acres and use hundreds of millions of gallons of water a year to control dust and wash rocks.

“It was enough for the Democrats,” Wilson said. “And that’s where I’d say to my Republican members that, you know, taking care of our people, of our resources, is conservative. I don’t know where in the hell we went wrong where we have labeled conservative to mean not protecting our environment.”

Wilson said the APO lobby is so influential in the Statehouse that “you’re literally asking them, ‘Can I pass this legislation?’ ”

He added: “When you bring a bill — and this is in both chambers — to the committees, the first thing that they do is send it to the industry on whether it should receive a hearing or not. That’s a problem.“

In an interview, Leftwich said additional regulation “is just unnecessary.” He said many of the complaints about APOs center on “nuisance issues like lighting, noise, all those type of things that comes along with any industry. It doesn’t matter if you’re a concrete batch plant or a trucking company or an H-E-B.”

Asked about cases of repeat violators, Leftwich released a statement saying APOs “work very closely and in partnership with local, state and federal regulatory officials to address” environmental concerns immediately.

‘Quarry row’

One side effect of quarry operations is often impossible to see: the dust borne aloft by the blasting, excavation, transportation and processing of rocks.

TCEQ air permits allow the sites to emit microscopic particles that can penetrate the respiratory system and, in sufficient quantities and with sustained exposure, cause diseases such as lung cancer and stroke.

Some rocks, including limestone, contain high concentrations of crystalline silica, which can cause severe respiratory conditions such as silicosis. The particles are 100 times smaller than the sand found on beaches.

A TCEQ report released last year said overall emissions of particulate matter from quarries, including crystalline silica, are “minimal or negligible” — a conclusion based on monitoring conducted “near APOs.”

The testing was conducted with five monitors placed in residential areas ranging from 0.3 miles to 1 mile from quarries. Many quarries operate machinery much closer to residential areas than 1 mile; the minimum buffer is 440 yards.

Wilson’s bill would have required all APOs to place air monitors at their property lines.

In 2002, residents living near “quarry row” — a stretch of 11 APOs in Comal County — requested a public hearing on an application by Cemex Construction Materials for a second rock crusher at its Balcones Quarry limestone plant.

In its application, Cemex agreed to employ the “best available control technology” to control dust, including spraying the site with water and enclosing rocks as they move through machinery. The TCEQ, citing computer modeling, predicted that concentrations of particulate matter would stay within federal standards.

In 2003, the state denied the request for a hearing. Cemex installed its second rock crusher.

In 2012, a nearby resident, Maggie Parma, complained to the TCEQ that the Balcones Quarry, which also operates a massive cement plant, was “creating a constant heavy output of dust and dirt.”

In an interview, Parma, 58, said dust fell on her wooded homestead like snow. Parma grew up on the property and was living there in 2012 with her elderly father; her grandchildren visited often.

“If you walked outside at night and you turned on a flashlight, you could see the dust in the air,” she said. “You know how snow flurries come down? It was like that, but in smaller bits.”

A TCEQ investigator who visited Parma’s property saw “a heavy coating of dust” on a BBQ grill and “all vegetation,” and a coating of dust on the windows of the home.

Driving toward the plant, the investigator saw “visible emissions” floating toward a neighborhood. She concluded that Cemex had created a “dust nuisance,” defined by the state as air pollution that “may tend to be injurious to or to adversely affect human health or welfare, animal life, vegetation, or property.”

The investigator recommended that the plant “prevent creation of nuisance conditions by minimizing dust emissions from leaving the property.”

A senior manager of external communications at Cemex did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

The problem persisted, and in 2015, Parma sold her 9-acre homestead to the quarry itself. The property had been in her family for 50 years.

Parma, who now lives in New Braunfels, scoffed at the state’s claim that current regulations are sufficient to protect human health and the environment.

“Yeah, whatever,” she said. “Then go live out there. It’s really unlivable.”

‘A very helpless feeling’

Kathleen Wilson, a woodworking artist, bought her slice of the Hill Country in Blanco County nearly three decades ago.

She planted flowers, shrubs and native trees across a slope that rises gently above Flat Creek. She built a quirky, two-story structure out of recycled and native material and opened it as a bed and breakfast.

In 2016, the arrival of the West Henly Site 4 miles upstream spoiled Wilson’s idyllic retreat.

For starters, there’s the dust.

“It gets on everything,” she said. “ Every week, before people come, I wait until the morning of (to clean). If I do it two days before, I have to do it again.”

Then there’s the noise.

“It’s just constant, ‘boom, boom, boom, boom,’ breaking rock,” Wilson said.

Even more concerning to Wilson is the degradation of the creek, which runs through her property.

In 2016, the TCEQ received a complaint that the 139-acre quarry, operated by a limited liability corporation called La Bala de Plata Investments, was not protecting a drainage ditch from construction activity. (The LLC, whose name is Spanish for “silver bullet,” did not respond to messages seeking comment.)

Even as it mined limestone, La Bala de Plata was developing about 10 acres of the site for commercial use. The company had not installed erosion or sediment controls at the construction site, causing sediment and rocks to spill into the drainage ditch and into culverts, a TCEQ investigation found.

A manager at the West Henly Site later sent the agency photographs showing that the problems had been fixed.

Across the water from Wilson’s property, Mike and Connie Yerington, 73 and 72, respectively, run another getaway, Hillside Acres Retreat, on 26 acres they purchased a dozen years ago.

The vacation property features luxury cabins, a fishing pond, a swimming pool, an organic garden, free range chickens, beehives — and access to Flat Creek.

In 2017, Mike complained to the TCEQ that the creek had turned gray.

“I said basically, the water has never been cloudy before; now it’s cloudy,” he recalled.

A TCEQ investigator again found inadequate controls to stop sediment from spilling into the creek. .

“Based on the observations ... the water quality complaint appeared to be substantiated,” the investigator wrote.

The quarry was cited for not preventing pollution; again, a site manager produced photographs showing that the silt fence had been repaired and the storm-water controls rebuilt.

Less than a year later, a third TCEQ investigation found that sediment again had spilled from the site into a tributary of Flat Creek.

The document noted that a previous investigation had “cited the same or similar allegation.”

“Repeat violations may warrant formal enforcement by the TCEQ,” it said beneath photos of a chalky substance caking the ground.

Since then, the TCEQ has issued no enforcement orders against the site, according to the quarry’s compliance history report.

The same report lists the quarry as having a perfect compliance history from September 2015 through August 2020; its repeated violations have vanished from that public record.

The site’s operators told the TCEQ they’d built a berm and reinforced the fence to fix the problem. But the quarry’s neighbors say the pollution hasn’t stopped.

“It’s gotten worse with time,” Mike Yerington said.

The retired executive called the TCEQ “worthless and toothless.”

“Their enforcement arm, they go out and say, ‘Yeah, we have a problem here,’ but they don’t do anything about it,” he said. “It’s a very helpless feeling that when you do complain, they’re unable to do anything about it.”

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