Mining industry opposes John Graves riverway protection bill; House committee deadline approaches

Photo courtesy of Brazos River Conservation Coalition

Photo courtesy of Brazos River Conservation Coalition

By Kathryn Jones

Editor

Supporters and opponents of a bill to extend the John Graves Scenic Riverway designation of the Brazos River to Hood and Somervell counties testified Tuesday before the House Natural Resources Committee in Austin.

Those who spoke in favor of House Bill 1519 said it would preserve the Brazos River for tourism and future generations.

Opponents represented by an industry group, however, told committee members the bill would unnecessarily add more regulation for sand, gravel and “aggregates” mining operations along the river.

(You can listen to the video of the committee meeting using RealPlayer; testimony is at the 1:14:52 mark. Go to House Natural Resources Committee 4/23 hearing)

The scenic riverway designation for the Brazos in Palo Pinto and Parker counties was passed unanimously by the legislature in 2005. County commissioners in Hood and Somervell counties have passed resolutions supporting the proposed extension.

The bill’s author, Texas Rep. J.D. Sheffield, whose district includes Somervell County, told the committee that the proposed legislation “seeks to conserve the river and its natural resources by adding protections and changing the permit process.”

In the other counties where the riverway designation exists, “it has been shown where both sides on this issue have worked together to mutual satisfaction,” Sheffield added.

He noted the river’s economic impact on communities such as Glen Rose.

“The tourism industry in Somervell County is growing rapidly and is vital to this area,” Sheffield said. “A lot of this tourism involves recreation in and around this river.

State Rep. J.D. Sheffield authored the bill to extend the riverway designation to Somervell County.

State Rep. J.D. Sheffield authored the bill to extend the protected riverway designation to Somervell County.

Nick Dornak, a watershed coordinator was the first to speak on the bill’s behalf. He said it would require “slightly more scrutiny” for the aggregates industry in an ecologically sensitive area that is “critically important” for local recreation and tourism.

He said he also was speaking on behalf of “future generations that have yet to dip a toe or a paddle or a fishing hook in a Texas river.” He said his two children enjoy spending time at their grandfather’s house on the Brazos and how important it was to them and to other families.

Ed Lowe, president of Friends of the Brazos River, a nonprofit advocacy group with more than 500 members, noted that the original John Graves Scenic Riverway legislation originally was enacted to protect the Brazos from an “egregious” rock mining operation that was allowing its waste to enter the river.

In 2011, Glen Rose resident Iris Broyles, on behalf of Friends of the Brazos, met with Parker County Commissioner John Roth who told her that to his knowledge there had been no negative economic impact in Parker and Palo Pinto counties. The commissioner also said that the legislation had not affected legitimate mining operations in the six years that it had been in place, Lowe told the committee.

He also said that there are two “compelling reasons” to pass the bill.

One is to “recognize and designate this historic and beautiful piece of the Brazos as worthy of protection,” Lowe said. The second reason is to honor and commemorate Graves’ classic book Goodbye to a River about his 1957 Brazos canoe trip down the Brazos through Parker, Palo Pinto, Hood and Somervell counties.

“Many consider his book to be one of the best ever written about Texas and its history,” Lowe said.

Graves, who is 92, lives in Glen Rose on a piece of land he calls “Hard Scrabble.”

Larry Wilson, who owns property on the Brazos, also spoke before the committee and estimated the bill would add about 60 miles to the existing scenic riverway designation.

“I’ve canoed the river and fished with John Graves,” Wilson said. “What a wonderful man. He wrote one of our most famous Texas books and his book chronicled this area of the river. We all are remiss for not having the full length of his Goodbye to a River as the John Graves waterway.”

Wilson said extending the designation was “important to the community and I do not think it will have any meaningful impact” on the aggregates industry.

He closed by quoting the late actor Paul Newman, who said “in the end our society will not be judged by what we have created, by what we have preserved.”

Richard Szecsy, president of the Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association, told the committee that aggregate mining operations already must register annually with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. They also are regularly inspected by the agency, he said.

“We firmly believe there is more than enough regulatory compliance for aggregate mining operations, whether they’re within the scenic waterway or within an area that would like to be encompassed within the scenic waterway, “Szecsy said. “So there is more than enough regulatory compliance there or at least oversight for those operations.”

Further regulation could affect the availability of raw materials such as sand and gravel needed for construction and take away one more “economic option” for individual property owners, as well as possibly have “long-term consequences,” Szecsy added.

He noted that if the riverway protection is expanded, mining operations — depending on their closeness to the river — would have to form a reclamation plan, a restoration plan and “provide financial insurance to account for that reclamation plan,” which could increase the cost of doing business.

TCEQ said it has identified nine businesses in Hood and two in Somervell that could be affected by the bill.

David Galindo with TCEQ’s Water Quality Division also testified that some of the mining operations would be subject to individual permit requirements under the bill.

“There would be more stringent requirements than under the original permits,” he said.

Galindo said that with the current riverway protection designation in Palo Pinto and Parker counties, the TCEQ does flyovers twice a year to look for operations that are doing business that are not authorized. It also submits a legislative report detailing what it has discovered and what sampling has shown.

“So far the sampling has shown that the water quality is being maintained in that area,” Galindo said. “There doesn’t seem to be any adverse effects caused by any mining operations in that area. There’s not any current impairment for water quality.

“Likewise, the new extended area is not under any current impairment for water quality,” he added.

The committee wanted to amend Sheffield’s bill by extending the date mining operations would have to comply from January 2014 to January 2015 to give the aggregate industries more time to make changes in their operations.

Lowe, contacted after the committee hearing, said the end of the legislative session is nearing and the committee has a short time frame to get bills out. The committee either will vote the riverway protection bill out by May 6 or let it die, Lowe said.

“That’s why we need to contact them ASAP and urge them to give it a committee vote,” Lowe said.

Those who want to contact committee members can click on the following link for contact information: http://www.house.state.tx.us/committees/committee/?committee=390&session=83

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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