Quarries are polluting parts of the Hill Country. Regulators aren't stopping them.
From Texas Standard:
Quarries have proliferated in recent years in the Texas Hill Country – so much so that a stretch of land in Comal County has come to be known as "quarry row." Residents living near these facilities say that the rise of these quarries has brought with it increased noise and pollution.
An investigation by the San Antonio Express-News found that frequent violators rarely face consequences from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the regulator that deals with pollution from facilities like these quarries.
Brian Chasnoff is an investigative reporter for the San Antonio Express-News.
Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to learn more about the 65% increase in the number of quarries in the state in the past seven years.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Your reporting explored the growing number of stone quarries in the Hill Country. Could you tell us about what's driving that growth?
Brian Chasnoff: it's just the incredible growth of the population of Texas. I mean, by some estimates, a thousand people are moving to Texas every day. And especially in the Hill Country, Hays County and Comal County are topping the list of the fastest-growing counties in the country. So it's just an incredible, incredible explosive growth.
In fact, I have talked with people who have moved out to Hill Country to escape some of the noise and grit and grime of the cities, only to find a new quarry being built not too far from their new house. This probably is a familiar story to you, too.
That's right. Of course, these quarries blast and they dig up and crush rock, especially limestone in the Hill Country, which is a key ingredient in cement, which goes into building new roads, new homes for all these people moving in. In the last seven years, there's been about a 65% increase in the number of quarries in Texas. There's more tan 1,000 throughout the entire state. And in the Hill Country region, there are about 140.
That's a lot for that one area. Who's in charge of regulating and monitoring these quarries? They surely they must have to get licenses and pass inspections and get approved.
Well, mostly it's the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the TCEQ, and there is an air permit that each quarry has to get for each piece of equipment on his property. But certain lawmakers at the Legislature have been saying more recently that the regulation is not keeping up with the impacts on on residents and the environment – the rivers and creeks [and] the air that Texans breathe. It's under assault in some ways.
That's a pretty broad statement. Specifically, if you're supposed to get approval from the TCEQ before you install equipment, why would that not be sufficient to prevent a sprouting of quarries all across the Hill Country?
To get your air permit, all the quarry has to do is essentially predict the concentration of particulate matter that each piece of equipment will emit. And then promise to keep it within federal standards and control the dust. But there's actually no monitoring on site of air quality at these quarries. I spoke with State Rep. Terry Wilson. He's a a Republican in Marble Falls. He's been leading an effort to – not eradicate the industry by any means. He understands the need for it, but just to monitor its impacts more closely. And one striking detail from my reporting is that the industry – the aggregates and concrete industry in Texas – just really has a stranglehold on the Legislature. And it's virtually impossible to enact any reform that would keep a closer eye on the impacts of these quarries.
Did you reach out to the TCEQ about this and what did they have to say?
Yes, I did. I requested dozens of documents from them throughout the course of my investigation, looking at the specific impacts. Their defense was that every time there's a violation, they require the quarry to resolve it. But the crux of my investigation found that in certain cases, these violations occur again and again – that the same quarry in certain cases commits the same violation repeatedly, and the TCEQ is either unable or unwilling to really rein it in.
And that's when pretty dramatic things can happen. In one case. I looked at a quarry that operates along the Colorado River, just east of Austin. And for years and years, it's been releasing sediment from its mining pits into the river, and it's literally changed the course of the river and eroded the opposite bank to the point where one home in particular is on the cusp of falling into the river. So these violations can a real impact, especially if they happen again and again.