Recently I flew from snowy Michigan to sunny Texas for a quick trip with my mom and sister. Our destination was my mom’s hometown of New Braunfels, a once-small town 35 miles northeast of San Antonio.
I have a hundred childhood memories of trips to see my grandparents at their farm just outside of town. It was a beautiful piece of land, dotted with cows, twisty live oaks, and the occasional prickly pear cactus. My sister Jennifer and I would play in the barn and go fishing for catfish. We’d sit on the front porch and watch the sun go down beyond the black silhouette of the windmill. We’d collect eggs from the old hen house each morning. And when a neighbor’s dog abandoned two adorable puppies under that hen house, we took one of them home—Tuffy became a beloved member of our family for the next 15 years.
So on Saturday, after enjoying a bigger breakfast than can ever be good for a person, Mom and Jennifer and I found ourselves on the road leading out to the farm. We knew it had become a pecan farm, but none of us had seen the place in years. Someone had told us the old stone house had become a city landmark, so we decided to stop. I hopped out to read a historical plaque on the side of the road when WHOOSH!, an enormous green dump truck flew by. A few moments later, another. And then another. Along the way we’d seen a big mining operation. Huge tracts of land were laid waste. Dust filled the air. The trucks were coming and going from the quarry like fire ants foraging around a nest.
I was excited and a little nervous when we pulled up to the pecan store, which you get to after passing rows and rows of neatly pruned trees. Right away we saw the owner, Mark Friesenhahn. It took a moment for him to register who we were, but soon he was leading us on an impromptu tour of the place.
Mark was as generous with his time as he was with his swear words. With a twinkle in his eye he peppered his stories with jokes about St. Peter’s beer hall up beyond the pearly gates. He was full of information about the land and the farmhouse, but when we asked about the trucks and the nearby mining activity we’d seen, he really got animated.
Aggregate Mining Grows
The famed Texas Hill Country is full of limestone, and crushed limestone forms the bulk of aggregate, which is used in road and building construction. As Mark explained, surface mining here is similar to mountaintop coal mining in Appalachia: rock is blasted several feet down, and truckloads of rock are carried to nearby crushing plants for processing. Massive amounts of water are needed to control the dust.
A few quarries have been here for decades, but the Aggregate Production Operations (APO) industry has mushroomed in recent years: as of last fall, there were nearly 1,000 quarries, concrete, and sand plants registered by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). And in the past 5 years, TCEQ has granted 334 air quality permits for rock crushing equipment. The aggregate industry owns over 7% of the land in Comal County, though their operations currently occupy only a portion of that acreage. There are visible scars all around the Hill Country, often near residential areas.
The environmental impacts of aggregate mining are serious: they include particulates released in the air, habitat loss, water overuse, and possible contamination to drinking water.
The dust is a health concern to many. Some mining operations are close to schools, parks, and housing subdivisions. Airborne particulates are correlated with higher rates of respiratory illnesses and certain kinds of cancer. Correlation isn’t the same as causation, of course, but scientists and medical professionals are concerned. Our own Forum Moderator, physician Phil McCurdy, lives in the region and said it’s a concern in his own neighborhood. He explained, “While an attempt is made to control the dust with water spray, in the dry heat of the summer, the trees are coated with white powder near the plants and a visible haze is present over the hills. Those with asthma and respiratory disease often suffer exacerbations of their problems and have to remain indoors when the dust is thick.” Industry leaders, on the other hand, argue that while the dust may be a nuisance, it isn’t dangerous, and they are following regulations.
Habitat loss is also noticeable. Large tracts of once-pristine land, full of native plants and wildlife—including endangered birds like the golden-cheeked warbler and whooping crane—now look like a moonscape. Unlike in most states, here there are no requirements for APOs to restore the land’s surface to a natural or economically usable state.
Water overuse and pollution is a serious concern as well. In a place where threats of drought and water restrictions are standard fare in the summertime, the industry uses massive amounts of water. A single 800-ton-per-hour crusher requires as much water in a year as 1,900 single family homes. Contaminants from runoff can easily disperse through the porous rock. The Edwards Aquifer is the primary source of drinking water for two million people and is particularly vulnerable; the aggregate giant Vulcan has proposed a new quarry on a 1,500 acre site atop the aquifer’s recharge zone. The site is ground zero for an ongoing legal fight between Vulcan and its opponents.
In caring for the land and the plants and animals therein, we take part in making a world in which people can flourish. Caring for people and caring for the planet are intrinsically linked.
Noise and light pollution present additional problems. Mark’s neighbors sold their farm, and the land—easily visible from the pecan store and farmhouse—now looks like a wasteland. Mining often continues around the clock, with large lights illuminating the work zone at night. At all hours Mark can hear the irritating sound of back-up beepers.
The trucks near Mark’s land are operated by a third-party company, he told me. Drivers are paid on commission based on how many loads they can run. They line up at 5AM for the first haul at 6AM. Most drivers do two in a day. Really ambitious ones can do three. They thunder down small farm roads carrying 20 tons of material. But because they don’t own and operate the trucks, the mining companies aren’t technically responsible for the increased traffic and wear and tear on the roads.
Texas is one of just seven states with no comprehensive APO mining regulations. The effects are staggering when you consider that the APO industry in Texas is 69% larger than the next largest state, California, as measured by the value of crushed stone, sand, and gravel. According to an investigation by KVUE, “The state has no permitting process for quarry operations, although aspects of the operation undergo a more extensive permitting review. To crush rock, companies must supply modeling to the TCEQ that they will not exceed regulation for the release of dust particles. The state reviews that modeling but conducts no independent analysis of that information. And while quarries face state inspections, the TCEQ does not routinely monitor air around quarries to ensure they are not releasing excessive dust.”
Citizens like Mark Friesenhahn are fighting for regulatory changes. Mark is part of a retired, volunteer “Quarry Row” Technical Team made up of experienced mining engineers and geologists. They have worked to quantify the APO industry and its impacts on Texas, and are interacting with state legislators and involved stakeholders.
Mark’s team has calculated, for example, that adopting comprehensive regulations would add a negligible amount to the “end user”—just 0.2% ($500 or less) to the cost of a new single-family home and 1-2% ($2,000 or less) to every mile of highway construction. Concerns that increased regulation will cost too much or shut down growth in the area seem unfounded.
Creation Care Implications
It’s hard to resist the urge to cast blame for the tragedy unfolding in the Texas Hill Country. Are APOs full of evil villains? Well no, at least probably not more than other industries. It’s shocking that mining activity happens near residential areas and that mine reclamation isn’t a priority here, but these companies don’t appear to be breaking any laws. The miners and truck drivers are working hard for an honest wage to feed their families. Besides, they are creating a product that is in high demand: APOs are a $2.4 billion industry in Texas.
Is it the government’s fault, then, for not regulating better? I suspect they could be doing much better—but it’s not entirely their fault either. Legislators are trying to keep the economy booming, create jobs, and improve state infrastructure on a budget. And they seem to be responding to concerns. I was encouraged to learn that lawmakers recently formed a committee to study the impacts and oversight of APOs.
Is it the fault of newcomers who create such demand for aggregate? None of us who live in a comfortable home and appreciate good roads can blame them. They want to raise their families or enjoy retirement in a beautiful, affordable place with a lot to offer.
The blight and environmental degradation caused by aggregate mining in Texas is one of those “wicked problems” that isn’t easily solved. There is no magic bullet. I suspect sacrifices will need to be made by all stakeholders.
What role will Christians play in all of this? To be sure, they exist in the highest echelons of government, in positions of power at Vulcan and other mining companies, and in thousands of homes and churches all over Texas.
Two thoughts come to mind here. The first is that the Bible doesn’t give us a list of best practices for mine reclamation or corporate growth. (We have scientists and engineers and business leaders for that.) Instead the Bible tells us that wisdom is needed for knowing how to handle difficult situations for which there is no rulebook. Wisdom is the ability to act with discernment and right judgment. It isn’t the same as knowledge, and we need to actively seek it out (Proverbs 2:1-5, James 1:5). Pursuing wisdom above the corporate bottom line or political expediency or the comforts of the American dream will no doubt be costly. But no doubt there will be fruits of “righteousness and justice and equity, every good path” (Proverbs 2:9).
My second thought is, very simply, that Christians need to frequently remind each other (and anyone else who will listen) that God calls people to care for his creation. In caring for the land and the plants and animals therein, we take part in making a world in which people can flourish. Caring for people and caring for the planet are intrinsically linked.
So what will happen to Mark Friesenhahn and the Comal Pecan Farm, the site of so many of my happy childhood memories? For now, perhaps not much. He’s on the wrong side of a geological fault to be of interest to an APO. But dust from nearby operations will settle ever thicker on his trees. Water may become scarce. And customers may not love driving out to the farm with all those trucks on the road. I’m not worried about him—he’s clearly a fighter—but whether the farm will be an enjoyable and life-giving place for his grandchildren, is by no means certain.
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