Fannin County residents met with State Sen. Bob Hall (R-2nd) in Bonham Thursday night to air their increasing frustrations with large-scale sand mining operations in the northernmost party of the county, along the Red River.
The residents say the growing number and scale of the mining operations are steadily destroying everything from environment and quality of life to the roads carrying truckloads of sand to construction sites in the DFW Metroplex.
The main question residents had for Sen. Hall was, can anything be done to rein in what they say are largely unregulated operations. At the moment, the answer is, not much.
Sand mining is not subject to the same kinds of environmental regulations as other types mining operations. Mining sand does not require chemicals to process raw material in the way coal or petroleum does. Therefore, the senator says, the issue of how to regulate sand mining operations is just now being looked at.
Hall says he is working with state agencies, such as the Texas Department of Agriculture, ahead of the 2018 legislative agenda to find ways to keep sand mining companies from operating with relative impunity. Residents questioned Hall on how quickly he could put the issue in front of other state lawmakers, but Hall said that the government can only move so fast. He is, he says, working on the matter as much as he is able, but he still needs to talk to a lot of agencies and with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick about what, if anything, can be done to balance a major industry with a rural way of life.
Texas is the nation’s leading sand producer. The state’s annual output, according to Forbes magazine, is about 40 million tons of sand per year. That, according to Rich Szeczy, president of the Texas Aggregates & Concrete Association, is more than the next two top-producing states (California and Pennsylvania) combined.
Regardless of the questions he received about environment or quality of life last night, Hall repeatedly returned to the idea of property rights. His ultimate goal, he says, is to find a balance between citizens rights and the rights of businesses to operate on private property as they see fit.
Alan Richard, vice president of the environmental group CORE, which hosted last night’s meeting, says he believes Sen. Hall is sincere in his intentions to look more deeply into the matter. But he is also wary that the senator’s stance on protecting private property rights could lead nowhere.
One key obstacle, said Hall following the meeting, is that to his knowledge no one else in Texas is having this kind of conversation about sand mining, and that there has been no discussion in Austin over the issue of controlling sand mining operations in Texas.
That doesn’t mean this is a new issue in the state. As far back as 2011, the San Antonio Express-News reported that sand mining in the Hill Country, while bringing jobs, was threatening the bucolic nature of the region. Mining operation in West Texas have increased greatly over the past decade, leading conservationists to decry the industry they blame for destroying native lizard habitats. And in September, the Texas Tribune reported on the encroachment of sand mining upon the sagebrush lizard in West Texas.
Hall cautioned residents during the meeting that more regulation is not necessarily the best answer to their concerns. Companies that already violate regulations simply would not listen to more regulations. A better approach, Hall said, was enforcement of carefully constructed regulations that would not inhibit business and still protect Fannin County from businesses operating with little oversight.
This past summer, the N-Tex Sand & Gravel was accused of dumping water from its Horn plant site in Ravenna onto the private property of resident Kathy Thomas. Thomas eventually got the Fannin County Sheriff’s Office to halt the spillage onto her property, but the incident serves as an example of the possible ineffectiveness of regulations Hall mentioned.
Richard said after the meeting that being a sparely populated rural county with little political power could also put Fannin at a disadvantage against a major business operation.