County Commissioners want to monitor mining sites

By Michelle Jimenez

Travis County officials on Tuesday said studying two new mining sites before activity begins would allow them to establish a baseline of information that could prove valuable if follow-up monitoring shows the operation has harmed the area's resources.

"If you don't establish a baseline, a private entity, whether it's a corporation or an individual, (you) will have one hell of a time proving that their water has been degraded and who did it," Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt said during a discussion about an agreement that would allow for that monitoring in eastern Travis County. "It's a huge leg up for a private entity if that public information is available."

The court didn't vote on the agreement with the city and the Lower Colorado River Authority because the City Council is scheduled to take action regarding the collaboration at its meeting Thursday. Joe Gieselman, the county's executive manager for Transportation and Natural Resources, said he would return to the commissioners after the city's vote in case there are last-minute changes. The court expects to take up the issue again on Aug. 17.

The court also postponed action on a separate agenda item related to parking assumptions that will be used in developing a long-term master plan for the county's downtown campus. County Judge Sam Biscoe asked Broaddus Planning, the firm hired to oversee the overall process, to return with a detailed plan for a proposed pilot parking program.

Monitoring of TXI Inc.'s Hornsby Bend east and west mining sites, with the company's cooperation, is one component of a larger planning effort called the Colorado River Corridor Plan. The plan calls for a study, which would be conducted in three phases, of a focus area bound by US 183 on the west, FM 969 on the north, the line with Bastrop County on the east, and SH 71 on the south.

Mining companies, including TXI, own about 40 percent of the land in the area. The county reluctantly granted the company a mining permit in January for the Hornsby Bend sites, despite community backlash. Commissioners said they had limited authority under state law and had no valid grounds to withhold the permit.

The study would culminate in a blueprint for developing the focus area, to include parkland and greenways, over the next 20 to 30 years. The city and county's cost would be $218,000, including in-kind services. As a separate phase, TXI would pitch in $60,000 to develop conceptual plans showing how its properties could be redeveloped over that horizon — that could be anything from a wetland to commercial development — after mining has ceased. The key, Gieselman said, will be working together to blend the two resulting concept plans.

Commissioner Ron Davis told Gieselman he had concerns and wanted to know more about TXI's past reclamation efforts.

"I'd like to see a track record of somewhere where this has been done already, if it has been done by TXI," Davis said.

Gieselman told Davis he couldn't cite examples of previous TXI reclamation projects but pointed to two instances of "positive" projects, both in San Antonio, in which old quarries had been converted to other uses. Trinity University, just north of downtown, sits on an old mining site, Gieselman said. And theQuarry shopping center, off of U.S. 281, was formerly home to the Alamo Cement Plant, whose original smokestacks were integrated into the center's design, according to the Quarry's Web site.

"If you ever went to see that campus, you would never believe that, at one time, it was a pit," Gieselman said about Trinity.

Gieselman told commissioners that TXI is currently working on a plan for a mixed-used development at one of its decommissioned sites, and he expects the proposal will go before the court in the future.

"It could very well be our first conservation development in Travis County," he told the court. "Over 50 percent of that property will be in green space, not necessarily publicly owned green space but green space along the Colorado River and tributaries."

Eckhardt said the news about the development is promising because it could prompt other companies to consider post-mining plans for their sites. Earlier this week, during an interview with In Fact Daily, she expressed concern about mining companies that leave behind difficult-to-develop moonscapes.

"If we can encourage them to create a higher standard for reclamation in the industry, we will be doing a service not only to the residents along the Colorado River alluvium but to residents in Texas, anywhere where there's gravel mining." Eckhardt said.