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State environmental agency proposes new rules for concrete plants in Texas

A concrete truck is washed at a concrete batch plant in Gunter on March 21. The state environmental agency has proposed new rules aimed at reducing pollution from the plants.
Shelby Tauber
The Texas Tribune
A concrete truck is washed at a concrete batch plant in Gunter on March 21. The state environmental agency has proposed new rules aimed at reducing pollution from the plants.

Communities statewide have demanded that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality strengthen environmental regulations for concrete batch plants, which combine raw materials such as sand, water and cement to make concrete. Residents who live near the plants have complained about air, noise and light pollution.

Now, proposed changes to a TCEQ permit these plants need to operate — lower production limits, dust reduction and setting minimum distance requirements from nearby communities — give some Texans hope that state regulators are cracking down on the plants’ emissions, while others believe the state agency is falling short on prioritizing the health of Texans.

Critics of the permit changes say the state has not taken into account the overall health impact of living near multiple concrete plants or required operators to report their emissions to the state.

Texans can still weigh in on the changes with the TCEQ; the public comment period ends later this week. The final proposal will then be presented to the commission for adoption.

If approved by TCEQ, the rules will take effect next January and will immediately apply to new plants, while current permit holders will need to comply within two years of the rules’ adoption.

Permits for concrete batch plants aim to limit pollution in the form of particulate matter, crystalline silica, carbon monoxide and other air toxins that have been linked to respiratory diseases and cancer.

In Gunter, a town of about 1,950 residents near Dallas, locals have made dozens of complaints to state regulators alleging that the facilities are polluting the air, irritating their respiratory conditions and contaminating the water their farm animals drink from.

“The only time I breathe [easily] and my blood pressure is down is on Saturday and Sundays” when the plants typically don’t operate, Linda Hunter, a Gunter resident who owns a farm next to a row of concrete batch plants, said earlier this year.

About 60 miles away from the rural town, Dallas residents from the community of Joppa, cited by some researchers as being among the most air-polluted neighborhoods in the city, have led a yearslong fight against industrial facilities and concrete batch plants near their predominantly Black neighborhood.

State lawmakers and federal officials have also pressured TCEQ to act.

Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched an investigation into Texas’ concrete batch plant permitting process after the Harris County attorney and Lone Star Legal Aid, a nonprofit law group, filed a lawsuit alleging that the TCEQ discriminated against people of color and those with limited English proficiency in the agency’s permitting process to build new concrete batch plants and renew permits for existing ones.

In the legislative session that ended last month, Democratic and Republican lawmakers authored dozens of bills aimed at limiting pollution and setting tighter regulations on concrete batch plants. Those proposals failed to become law, but lawmakers passed bills that will give Texans more time to make public comments about certain TCEQ permit applications and require the agency to post permit meeting notices on its website in addition to the required public posting in local newspapers or other publications.

Amy Catherine Dinn, an attorney for Lone Star Legal Aid, the group that filed the lawsuit on the concrete batch plant permitting process, said she hopes that some of the changes TCEQ is proposing will help the pollution problem. “Hopefully less [dust] will be leaving the fenceline and getting out into the community,” she said.

Josh Leftwich, president and CEO of Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association, said in an email that the group’s member companies “do all they can” to minimize dust at their sites and reduce noise and truck traffic.

Among TCEQ’s proposed changes is setting production rate limits on individual plants to 650,000 cubic yards per year. New proposed rules will also lower hourly concrete production rates for some counties, including Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty and Montgomery, to 200 cubic yards per hour from the original 300. The current daily maximum of 6,000 cubic yards per day has been removed from the proposed permit.

The industry group says it is not worried about the production limits proposed by TCEQ and will “abide by any changes that may be enacted.”

"Our members will still be able to supply the materials Texas needs to ensure that it can get the materials it needs to build, maintain and improve its infrastructure while protecting the environment," Leftwich said.

The Texas concrete industry generates more than $10 billion annually for the state economy, according to the group.

Dinn said that while the production limits offer relief to communities, she worries that they will lead to more concrete batch plants opening in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods that are “more susceptible” to plants. She points to Houston, where a lack of zoning restrictions makes it easier for these plants to open.

“[The permit] doesn’t say ‘We’ve already got several [concrete batch plants] in this area, so no more,’” she said.

Dinn said the residents she represents in Houston would like to see TCEQ add a cap on how many concrete batch plants can be within a certain radius.

TCEQ’s proposed changes to the concrete batch plant permit would also require workers to reduce the dust produced at plants when transporting and transferring concrete. The agency proposes that companies be required to water, sweep and clean machinery, trucks and plant road entrances to minimize dust, in addition to the already required fences around the perimeter of the facility that are at least 12 feet tall.

The EPA is now considering whether to set stricter limits on particulate matter nationally, said Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy nonprofit group. Shelley said if the EPA adopts new limits, it would be prudent for TCEQ to redo its review of concrete batch plants’ pollution levels to stay in line with the federal agency’s guidance.

TCEQ spokesperson Victoria Cann said the agency “would conduct an updated air quality analysis, and setback distances may be revised” depending on the results of the EPA’s actions on particulate matter.

The state agency is also proposing increasing the minimum distance requirements for concrete batch plants from nearby communities. The current minimum is 100 feet from any property line, and the proposal would increase that to 200 feet in Harris, Chambers, Fort Bend, Brazoria, Galveston, Montgomery and Waller Counties and 300 feet in Cameron and Hidalgo counties.

While the proposed changes address some concerns, environmental advocates say they fail to address the problem of cumulative pollution from clusters of batch plants.

“There’s been a pretty long-standing concern,” Shelley said. “We just fundamentally disagree with the agency about whether they’re accounting for cumulative impacts.”

Cann, the TCEQ spokesperson, said the agency’s air quality analysis of concrete plants took into account cumulative air impacts.

Cliff Kaplan, a program director for Hill Country Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups, said that the background monitors used for the air impact analysis aren’t “always near where major areas of activity are for industry.”

Dinn, the lawyer who represents many Harris County residents who’ve expressed concern about concrete batch plants, said the residents worry TCEQ will not enforce its new rules if they are approved.

TCEQ commissioners have become reluctant to regulate the industry, often “relying heavily on self-reported information,” according to an independent analysis last year that reviewed the agency’s operations for the state.