Air quality hearing clouded

Burnet resident Paul King is one of several area residents that opposes a permit amendment to allow an increase in production for the Oldcastle Materials Texas rock quarry on US 281.

By Alexandria Randolph

Highland Lakes Newspapers

Citizens begged state environmental officials to consider the cumulative effects of air pollutants at an air quality hearing for a local rock quarry Thursday.

Burnet County residents took to the mic to openly oppose the permit amendment, which would authorize modifications to the rock crushing facility at the Oldcastle Materials Texas quarry on US 281, (formerly Capital Aggregates) allowing for an increase in production.

Johnny Ulmer, a contractor who has worked around rock quarries in San Antonio, said that quarries in the city don't produce nearly as much dust and air pollution as the local quarry.

They are out here in the country and think they can get away with it. They are taking advantage of us,” he said after the meeting.

During the three-part hearing on Thursday evening, May 5, community members had opportunity to ask questions and make comments to representatives from permit applicant, APAC-Texas, Inc., the company that owns the rock crushing facility, and officials from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

A number of residents were present to express concerns about the dust as a health hazard and even a traffic hazard when the haze clouded over the US 281 highway.

As a part of the introductory portion of the meeting, Plant Manager Brett Ballard explained that rock from the quarry just north of Marble Falls on US 281 was used to “build dams, house slabs, roads, bridges… goes into the steel industry, provides minerals for salt blocks for cattle,” and is used in paint, cosmetics and glass.

Ballard explained the purpose of the permit amendment was a part of the company's plan to “increase output in a more efficient way.” He assured the size of the plant will not change.

Joel Stanford, Air Permit Specialist for TCEQ assigned to this permit application, said the quarry will be growing their operation from 7.7 million tons of gravel to 12 million tons per year and adding two additional rock crushers.

He said there will be “no visible increase to the plant footprint.”

During the question and answer portion of the meeting, Ulmer asked if regulations for air quality were the same across the state, and when TCEQ officials responded that they were, he said he had “never seen the amount of dust coming from (the San Antonio quarries) as I see coming from this one.”

TCEQ officials said while they had received several reports of air pollution from the Oldcastle quarry, they had received reports for other nearby quarries as well, and not an unusual number of reports. TCEQ officials said they had never had an enforcement issue at the facility.

One woman asked for more clarification on what exactly was being amended in the permit code. APAC-Tex officials responded that the production and operation hours of the rock crushing facility at the plant were limited and would be amended, but another official said that technically there would be no real change since the facility was permitted to operate 24 hours a day, every day of the week.

Another issue of concern for residents was what entity was responsible for monitoring its own pollutant output – something that some at the meeting felt could call ethics into question.

Stanford said currently, the company is not required to use electronic monitoring, and the quarry has to keep records of its own production, which TCEQ officials can use to determine pollutant output.

We don't know if they're operating the dust control equipment all the time,” said Burnet County resident Paul King, adding that without electronic monitoring equipment, it put all the responsibility on TCEQ and individual reporting to make sure the facility wasn't producing too much pollutant.

What you're saying is, the technology is available; it's an economic matter?” King questioned.

Essentially, yes.” Stanford replied. “There are particulate monitors that are available, but we're getting into dollars. We feel the mechanisms of the permit are sufficient.”

Another resident asked if the fines for violating a permit would be large enough to deter a multi-million dollar company from doing so.

Isabel Trevino, assistant legal counsel in the Office of Public Interest Counsel, responded that the fines were could range up to $20,000 per day depending on the type and duration of a violation.

Another concern many citizens voiced was whether the cumulative impact of air pollution from the rock crushing facility, other areas of the plant, and a Capital Aggregates plant just across the highway should be under consideration by TCEQ.

Stanford said the agency couldn't consider a cumulative impact because the current air pollutants were “considered such a low level that it doesn't trigger the necessity to pull everything in [into the model].”

Stanford said that because the hourly emissions wouldn't be changing according to the model in the application, there was no requirement for additional modeling or hourly modeling.

In addition, Ballard pointed out after the meeting, the two quarries aren't operated by the same companies.

They're trying to lump everything together but we're all independent of each other,” Ballard said of the several quarries along the US 281 corridor in Burnet County.

Still, resident Marty Akins pointed out, TCEQ had to rely on modeling studies done by the applicant company.

The agency (TCEQ) verifies what it receives,” assured Trevino, but she added “we don't have the resources to do our own modeling.”

It sounds like we as the public have to rely on them to tell the truth,” Akins said.

That's what was decided by the legislature. That's the way the permit processes work and that's what we have to work with,” Trevino said.

King said he believed the company was doing a showmanship game – amending permits on one hand while expanding facilities on the other, all the while not revealing the ultimate result.

TCEQ officials said that while the permitting office had a staff of roughly 300, each applicant company was assigned an identification number to track future applications and would be handled by the same permit specialists in teams of 12.

Stanford assured that if a company was attempting a showmanship game as King suggested, the TCEQ office would be able to “smell the rat.”

In the formal comment period, residents stepped back up to the mic to express strong feelings about the application.

I think all of us are very concerned that TCEQ is answering their questions,” Akins said, referring to the APAC-Tex representatives at the meeting that night. “This doesn't meet the smell test. It smells like a rat. We're here for truth – it's not your (TCEQ's) role to protect them. Have you guys ever denied an application to any of them before?”

Two residents who had homes on Park Road 4 came forward to put their comments on record about the amount of dust that landed on their homes, patios, and vegetable gardens when the rock crushing facility was in operation.

Austin attorney Brian Sledge of Sledge Law & Public Strategies spoke on behalf of his clients, Akins and King, to comment that the application had major inconsistencies, indications of errors in the data submitted, and that it was “unrealistic to say that with a 62 percent increase in production, that an increase in the on-site stockpile will not take place,” meaning that the statement that the plant would not increase in footprint was simply untrue. He also claimed old data models were used in the application, and that estimates of the cost associated with initiating the changes in equipment were underreported.

The application failed to show compliance for silica and the potential harmful impacts from silica from this facility are not known,” Sledge said. “These incremental increases just cry out that a cumulative impact study be performed.”

TCEQ officials said the permit application is still in its draft stages, meaning that it hasn't been declared complete or formalized. TCEQ and APAC-Tex will continue discussions until the draft is finalized, at which point a second round of public notices will be issued. There is no set timeline for this process, TCEQ officials said Monday. 

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