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Travis County Commissioners vote to allow mining project

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 by Michael Kanin

There were no last-minute reprieves this time for the members of an eastern Travis County community hoping to stall a mining project, as the Travis County Commissioners Court voted 3-2 Tuesday to allow permitting for the project to move forward. In their action, the commissioners lamented the lack of regulatory power that had been granted to them by the State Legislature.


Commissioners Margaret Gomez and Sarah Eckhardt voted with County Judge Sam Biscoe for the permit; Commissioners Ron Davis and Karen Huber voted against it. Texas Industries Incorporated (TXI) will operate the mines.


Davis, whose Precinct 1 constituents would be impacted by the project, reacted with indignation to the pending vote. “Someday the voice of the people is going to be heard,” he said. “I hope it’s during my terms.”


The hearing was heated at times, as residents of Hornsby Bend — the still-developing community that will host the mines, provided there are no more delays in the permitting process — sought intervention from the court. Area resident Richard McDonald testified about his and his neighbor’s worries over the amount of heavy vehicle traffic that would result from the project, and the damage that traffic might do to roadways he claimed are ill-equipped to deal with it. In response, Eckhardt, the Precinct 2 commissioner, suggested that the county would have “a hammer to bring down” if TXI has been misleading in regards to its roadway needs.


Further contention erupted when TXI representatives, including attorney Henry Gilmore, faced questions from the commissioners. Seeming to grow impatient with how drawn-out the permitting process had become for his clients, Gilmore — a partner with DuBois, Bryant, and Campbell — asked the court “respectfully” to move his issue forward, noting that TXI had “addressed all of the 404 core issues.” The 404 Permit is a regulatory tool used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to “prohibit the discharge of dredge or fill material into waters of the United States, including special aquatic sites such as wetlands.”


Before taking a final vote on the issue, Eckhardt asked if TXI would consent to mediation, a proposal she hoped would lead to better communication between TXI and Hornsby Bend residents. After leaving the hearing room for a brief conference, TXI representatives declined such a formal arrangement. Earlier in the afternoon, both commissioners and residents had complained about a lack of communication throughout the process.


After securing their victory, TXI representatives left the hearing room as Biscoe introduced a motion to study the prospect of post-permit monitoring of the future TXI site, saying, “There are some things that we can do.” This item also passed the court, this time with a 4-0 vote (Davis abstained pending confirmed involvement from the Austin City Council).


Residents of Hornsby Bend, which is in eastern Travis County, had hoped that the development of the proposed facility might be impeded by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers action. Resident Ryan Metz, who first brought the issue to federal attention, said that he was “extremely disappointed” with the court’s ruling. A letter from the Corps to Travis County said, “Based on field reconnaissance conducted by USACE personnel in January, your description, maps and plans of the proposed work and other information available to us, we have determined this project will not involve activities subject to the requirements of Section 404 or Section 10.”

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