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Citizen inquiry provokes federal look at TXI mine, delays permitting

Wednesday, January 13, 2010 by Austin Monitor

TXI, the controversial proposed mining operation in Eastern Travis County, faces a delay of perhaps a few more weeks — and possibly much longer — as the US Army Corps of Engineers  (USACE) looks at the project. Ryan Metz, an environmental consultant who lives near the site, prepared a sheaf of information for the Corps of Engineers, who told Travis County Commissioners they wanted to hear more about the project moments before the permits were brought before the court Tuesday.


TXI has spent more than a year trying to get permits for a proposed sand and gravel mine on approximately 1000 acres adjacent to planned communities at Hornsby Bend. The planned operations involve digging a mine pit up to 40 feet deep, running more than 700 trucks daily to and from the site, and operating throughout all hours. The project would take 15 to 20 years. Along the way, TXI has said they will “reclaim” the mined portions of the tract with infill, monitor environmental indicators, and pay for road improvements. TXI representative David Perkins told In Fact Daily the mine would potentially be worth around $100 million to the company over the course of its life.


Metz was able to earn citizens of the area a reprieve of sorts when he presented the USACE with information indicating that the mine would potentially damage a tributary to Gilleland Creek, which runs through the proposed site. If the creek is in the USACE’s jurisdiction, any changes to the site would need federal approval. Regulatory Project Manager Jennifer Walker informed Metz and the court that her office would like to meet with TXI to determine whether Metz’s information was accurate, and if so, what sort of permitting would be needed.


In an e-mail to Metz and the court, Walker expressed concern that TXI had been getting portions of the mining project permitted rather than comprehensively dealing with the entire project and its effects. “All elements, including any road improvements necessary to accomplish the project would be evaluated as one single and complete project and would therefore need to be totaled relative to permit thresholds. We do not piecemeal projects so that applicants can inappropriately stack NWPs,” she wrote to Metz and the court.


Metz told the court that the USACE permitting process could even trigger a National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process to evaluate the impact of the site on the waterways. Such a process could conceivably take years to resolve. The information sent ripples through the crowded courtroom and seemed to stun TXI executives, who had only learned about USACE involvement moments before the agenda item was called up. They weren’t alone, as Judge Sam Biscoe said, “I walked in here this morning ready to make a decision and now things seem to have gotten muddled.”


TXI representatives took issue with the delay and the implication that the company was dodging the permitting process. Richard MacDonald, speaking on behalf of concerned residents, cited TXI’s scrapped plans for a miles-long conveyor belt as an example of the company’s dodging additional risks to its permit. “There are multiple ways you can go forward with this process,” he said, “and the roadway improvement agreement is one of those.”


Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt said the reason the county hadn’t pursued the same line of inquiry as Metz was because “it was the opinion of county staff and city staff as well as TXI’s consultant that there was such a remote chance that USACE would ever weigh in on this based on previous experience with USACE. We had sent them permits in the past and they had essentially told us not to bother them with any of this kind of stuff.” She said she was “thrilled this is on the USACE’s radar” and speculated that perhaps a “sea change” has occurred at the offices. However, she cautioned against overly high expectations, saying it is entirely possible that the USACE review will ultimately not result in any changes.


When the TXI issue last came before commissioners the week before Christmas, they were divided on a course of action and the input of county attorneys. Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis and Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber proposed a motion to deny the permits; however, other members of the court were not so inclined. Since there was no motion made to approve the permits, the county did nothing.


Huber told In Fact Daily the project was in “the wrong place at the wrong time” and took issue with the notion that Travis County would be sued for breach of authority should they deny the permit. She said that for large companies like TXI, “if they don’t get what they want they’ll follow up with a suit regardless of legal standing.” Huber said she thought the incompatibility of the project necessitated the county’s pushing its authority to its limits, adding, “I want to call on other leadership in the region to do what’s right for Austin,” noting that the mine is about a mile from Hwy 130, which is a designated high growth area.


On Tuesday, commissioners voted unanimously to postpone action until issues with the USACE are resolved.

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