County to consider developing plan to reclaim mining properties

By Michelle Jimenez, In Fact Aug 3-4 2010

Despite an outcry from concerned community members, the Travis County Commissioners Court in late January reluctantly granted Texas Industries, Inc., a permit to mine sand and gravel on 1,200 acres in eastern Travis County, saying it had no grounds to deny the permit.

Now, six months later, the court is scheduled to receive a briefing today — and could vote — on an agreement with TXI, the city and the Lower Colorado River Authority to conduct a study that would culminate in a long-term plan to reclaim mining properties in eastern Travis County, along the Colorado River corridor. The public entities' costs would total $218,000, including in-kind services.

The agreement also would allow for environmental monitoring of TXI properties, something TXI would be doing voluntarily, a company spokesman told In Fact Daily on Monday. TXI would contribute $60,000 to the cost.

The Austin City Council is scheduled to take a similar vote at its meeting Thursday.

"We can't stop the gravel mining," Commissioner Sarah Eckhart said Monday. "The state doesn't allow us to, but we can get in the bully pulpit early and work with the gravel industry – to the extent that they will work with us – to have higher standards for reclamation so those properties, when they're done with them, don't end up being a moonscape."

The effort would build on an existing partnership Travis County has with Bastrop County officials for developing a vision for the Colorado River corridor.

County staff members estimate the project can be done within six months, and to ensure that it is completed, they will also ask the court on Tuesday to waive the competitive bidding process. The county is proposing to hire Bosse and Pharis Associates of Austin, for professional land planning services and Thorhill Group of Round Rock, for environmental monitoring services.

The study will look at the Colorado River in an area of about 30,600 acres bound by US 183 on the west, FM 969 at the north, the line with Bastrop County on the east and SH 71 as the southern boundary.

About 40 percent of that land is owned by a mining operation — some of it identified as being in high need of preservation under the "Greenprint for Growth." The Greenprint is a roadmap created in partnership with the city and other entities to help Travis County meet its green space needs as the area continues to grow.

County officials said momentum for the partnership increased as a result of community protest to TXI's plans to expand mining operations in eastern Travis County to what are known as the Hornsby Bend east and west sites, which together comprise 2,000 acres. Mining operations would be limited to about 1,200 acres, said David Perkins, director of TXI's corporate communications in Dallas.

The county granted TXI a mining permit for that area in January, after initial efforts by Commissioners Ron Davis and Margaret Gómez to deny it, with the court ultimately saying it had no grounds to deny the request.

Under state law, the county cannot decide how land can be used. It can only set standards for roads and drainage and regulate development in the flood plain.

"Under the law and the facts available to us, Travis County could not prevent the TXI mine from happening," Eckhardt wrote in a post to her blog the day of the vote. "But, Travis County can influence how the TXI mine functions."

She also wrote: "Where that authority is lacking, we will prove the inadequacy to the Legislature with hard facts developed through monitoring and continued political engagement on land use policy in our community and in our state."

By law, TXI does not have to participate in the environmental monitoring project. However, Perkins said his company believes it runs a good operation and is willing to be transparent about it.

"We also are very confident that this will allow these questions to be answered without people just relying on non-quantitative data," he said, referring to concerns raised by community members. "We feel that the monitoring program is going to bear out that we are operating in a good fashion."

TXI has been mining in eastern Travis County for more than 30 years and owns about 6,000 acres in this region, as well as 11 miles of property along the Colorado River, Perkins said.

A draft of the agreement to be considered by the court today outlines the scope of work, which would be spread over three phases.

The first phase of the project would involve coming up with a general plan for the corridor, one that considers compatible land uses, the land transition from sand and gravel mining to other uses, water management and economic development, among a host of other factors. The final concept plan will integrate reclaimed mining sites and serve as a roadmap for the development of a system of parks, greenways and wetlands along the Colorado River and its tributaries within the corridor.

"It's really about the transition of a rural, agricultural, mining community into an urban area. How does that happen over time?" Joe Gieselman, the county's executive manager for Transportation and Natural Resources, told In Fact Daily on Monday.

Phase 2 will involve a study of TXI properties to see what opportunities and constraints could affect reclaiming the sites for future uses, such as parkland, residential or commercial purposes. And the final phase of the project would involve an assessment, to include air, water and noise quality tests, of pre-mining and post-mining conditions or impacts of TXI's Hornsby Bend east and west mining sites.

Perkins said TXI has not yet begun mining at the Hornsby sites.

"At this point, we don't have an estimated start time," he said. "Some of it's going to be a factor of how quickly the market picks back up and how quickly that demand starts to come back up again."