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Travis commissioners delay TXI decision

Thursday, December 17, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

Travis County Commissioners this week delayed voting on a controversial mining project in the eastern portion of the county after time constraints prevented all those who wished to speak from having the opportunity. Additional lines of questioning went unanswered from the county, including several inquiries from a knowledgeable citizen about the role federal regulations may be able to play in stopping the project.


Commissioners spent most of their time questioning TXI officials and laying out the case for their limited authority. Citizens, increasingly organized, continued to press for answers and creative ways to prevent a sand and gravel mine from operating next to planned communities for the next two decades.


TXI is one of the nation’s largest aggregate mining operations and the largest producer of cement in Texas. Their latest quarterly sales topped $85 million for the first quarter, FY 10.


County staff had been waiting to hear back from TXI on three issues pertaining to drainage, a driveway on the site, and road improvements. After receiving the information requested, staff had recommended proceeding with the permit approval. TxDOT would also have to approve these improvements. David Greer, a roadway and bridge engineer with the county’s TNR department, said that the county did not estimate any greater maintenance costs due to the improvements.


Murfee Engineering drew up plans for the three driveway connections to Dunlap road, which the county staff found satisfied permitting requirements.


TXI will be mining and hauling aggregate to Webberville for processing. They have estimated between 250 and 750 daily truck trips from the site. The road improvements they have agreed to include: the reconstruction of Dunlap Road from the location of TXI’s driveways up to FM 969, the widening of Dunlap to a 30-foot section which would include turning lanes and shoulders, and improved pavement structure to support increased truck traffic. This construction would happen in two phases and improvements would be required prior to any mining occurring on the sites.


TXI would need to provide the engineering designs and submit construction plans to TxDOT for approval, as well as somehow secure the right-of-way outside anything TxDOT may have. As well, TXI would provide an advance funding and indemnification agreement beforehand. The county would maintain the improvements once built.


Intersection improvements would also occur at Dunlap and FM 969 and include turning lanes. TXI will pay its share of any stoplights should TxDOT determine they’re needed.


Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis noted widespread concerns about the mine’s operation’s degrading air and water quality and pointed out the mine’s proximity to an elementary school.


Tom Webber of the county’s TNR department said the county would be monitoring this issue. There are no state-required permits for air quality when it comes to mines, and Webber said the company would only be subjected to the “general requirements of the Texas health and safety code, which require them not to cause a problem, essentially, that affects property or human health off site.”


Webber said dust and particulate matter are the biggest concerns for air quality in an operation such as this and that TXI had provided “a fairly detailed watering plan” that would keep those irritants from causing too much dust.


Water quality, Webber said, is “another area where we don’t believe the county has authority or clear jurisdiction to require any type of ground water assessment.” He said TXI had provided a report from a hydrologist that said the water would route around the pits and not incur any “quantity” issues.


As far as water quality, Webber said TCEQ required a “general permit” to ensure that nearby surface water quality would not be degraded. TCEQ would “specify the monitoring requirements and the frequency of monitoring if they are going to have discharges.”


Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt teased out several other possibilities – for example, that environmental violations could be taken up with TCEQ or the Attorney General’s office in the event that sub-standard qualities of air and water were occurring. Davis noted, however, the lack of response from TCEQ in the past, saying, “I don’t feel comfortable with TCEQ at the moment.”


Eckhardt boiled down the county’s position by saying, “The only authority that’s been placed in our hands by the state with regard to those categories are traffic and, to a limited degree, water as it relates to runoff and possible future points source discharge.” She then asked county legal staff a series of questions concerning whether the applicant had fulfilled its statutory requirements. She also made sure that the county had authority to enforce certain levels of effluent limitations and discharge.


Eckhardt surmised that the citizen concerns over water, air, noise, and history are out of the county’s authority. She did say that, pertaining to “natural beauty,” the county had a “pre-existing green print which the county pursues, period.”


Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber wondered about the impact the mine would have on recharge, seeing as the mine is below the well levels of nearby pumps. Webber said the company had no legal authority to account for that, as the area is under “rule of capture,” meaning there is not a Groundwater Conservation District managing available groundwater. Currently, buffers of 200 feet from the center of Elm Creek, Decker Creek, and Gilleland Creek are the only restrictions.


A slew of citizens again listed their complaints – primarily the same issues of water quality, traffic, air quality, nuisance, and property value decline – that have been cited before.


Ryan Metz, a resident of Austin Colony, an adjacent master-planned community, had a series of questions that county staff was unable to answer. Metz has professional experience with an environmental consulting and engineering firm. He said that road improvements crossed two tributaries, which the Army Corps of Engineers was required to permit. He also cited county code and raised questions concerning whether or not Travis County could procedurally approve the TXI permits if all other permits were not yet approved.


Finally, Metz said that there may be a chance that federally required NEPA regulations may impact the permits. Judge Biscoe proposed taking up the items next Tuesday after he had time to investigate “legal questions.”


He told In Fact Daily that these questions pertained to “confirmation of exactly what authority (the county) has over the gravel pit project,” while noting state and federal environmental quality processes and requirements that he also wanted addressed. Biscoe specifically said the issue with NEPA requirements might mean that county action could “foreclose the state and federal government doing things that they otherwise would do.”


Biscoe noted that “when you start talking about pollution, noise, air quality, underground water quality, adverse impact, you bring into play a variety of legal standards,” and he said he wanted to see what the county could and couldn’t do.  The judge said he expects to take action next week after time in court and executive session.

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