Eastside Residents Decry Cluster of Rock Crushers

TCEQ says it’s out of their hands

A rock crusher outside of Austin (Photo by Lina Fisher)

Just months after the Texas Commission on Environ­ment­al Quality granted Ranger Excavat­ing a permit for a permanent rock crushing plant just east of city limits, another rock crusher in the area is now attempting to renew its own permit. Marcelo's Sand & Loam has operated in the Knollwood neighborhood near Bolm District Park since 2009, and this is a standard renewal; in other words, nothing about the operation is changing.

However, the area already houses five other crushers, counting Ranger Excavating. As it's transformed from purely industrial use to more residential, residents – 250 of them within a mile of the crusher – have mounting health concerns related to silica, a carcinogenic mineral found in concrete dust that comes off crushers. At TCEQ's informational meeting on Tuesday, requested by Congressman Greg Casar and Texas Sen. Judith Zaffirini, neighbors learned that much of air quality enforcement is out of that agency's hands.

"When is enough enough?" asked resident David Sides. "Where's the sixth, seventh, eighth one going? Why do we have them all in our neighborhood?" Clustering is a common practice for crushers and has been consistently flagged as a health concern by environmental advocates at the Legislature. However, clustering is outside TCEQ's jurisdiction and would have to be addressed by the city through zoning rules, TCEQ representatives stressed – and the rock crusher area is still in the city of Austin's extraterritorial jurisdiction.

Questions then turned to compliance. "When the wind kicks up, the air gets so full of dust that you go outside and your eyes sting," said Sides. Neighbors have made multiple complaints, at least one of which TCEQ investigated with a surprise visit. However, the agency's investigation is "only a snapshot in time," admitted Elijah Gandee, the compliance officer for the region. Dust varies by time of day and weather, and when the investigator came to assess the issue for the Ranger permit, there was none.

Furthermore, when a facility applies for a permit, they self-report how their operation meets TCEQ requirements. TCEQ only checks that when they apply for renewal. Residents at the meeting asked what recourse there was for removing one of these crushers, and TCEQ reps told them that they couldn't give legal advice on the matter. Barring a lawsuit or criminal case, the only way a permit can be curtailed is when the operator tries to renew after 10 years – and even then, if they have a history of noncompliance, TCEQ can only reduce the renewal period to five years and not grant them any new permits. Agency representatives told residents at the meeting that they could submit their own photo evidence of noncompliance to TCEQ, as well as request that air quality monitors be placed in the area.

"So, the onus is on us to complain," concluded resident Fabián Aguirre. "Typically when you get to a neighborhood, you go there because you want to build your roots. I have a kid, and I feel bad choosing this place for her, when I know there's a potential health risk based on these rock plants that are there."

Editor's note Oct. 2, 3:13pm: This story has been updated to correct that the area the crushers are in across from the Knollwood neighborhood, is outside Austin's city limits; Knollwood is inside city limits. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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