This is one of the more difficult and complicated stories I have had to write, for a number of reasons. The first is that I believe it is important to always try and keep some distance between covering a story and being a part of it. In this situation, I did not have that choice. We have a very limited staff, and I am the only writer. However, I also live at "ground zero" in the fight over the sand plants, so I do not have the leisure of having a detached attitude about the situation.
The second problem I have is that I do see positives with the frac sand mines. At a time when unemployment is at near record levels, it's difficult to turn up our noses at any jobs. I also know and respect many of the folks who have current sand mine operations, and respect the way that many of them have made themselves a vital part of our community. Erna Frac Sand provided the only source of water for air tankers during the Blockhouse and Tri-County Road fires, as well as finding funding that helped the youth football program make huge strides in only its third year. Carmeuse Sands provides funding to the Wounded Warrior hunts in Mason County, and are involved in helping those same heroes live happy and normal lives.
But, I also feel that, due to what has been learned in this process, it is important that the community have as much of this information as I am able to share. I welcome opposing viewpoints, and offer those parties the same amount of space to make their arguments. We did receive a letter to the editor this week praising sand plants and all they bring to the community; but, the letter was unsigned. We do not accept anonymous submissions, so it will not be printed.
The Land Sells
Through 2010, the residents of Katemcy began hearing rumors about their neighbors either being approached to sell their land, or having already contracted to sell that land. Though the actual identity of the buyer was unclear, some of those that had been approached to sell and refused; and others in the community that knew some of the sellers closely, identified that the buyer appeared to be a frac sand mining company.For several months, residents carried on conversations that always began with, "Who else has sold?" or "Have you been approached?" Virtual tally lists were made up showing, on one side, the tracts that had definitely sold. On the other side were tracts that the landowners had made clear were not for sale. Written in the margins on both sides were 'possible' tracts - land that the owners had indicated they might sell; but, had not made a final determination.Details, though they were supposed to be confidential, leaked out as they always do in Mason. We learned that some people got incredible generous prices for their tracts, while others appeared to have settled for prices barely above current market. We also learned that the sellers had been told that actual development would probably not occur for three to five years, if even then.In the spring of 2011, it became obvious that a large swath of real estate in the middle of Katemcy and Camp Air had been put together. It comprised land holdings for multiple sellers; but, it allowed for access to Ranch Road 1222 on the east and south sides, and reached Highway 87 in a narrow strip on the west side. Residents knew by looking at the map and at aerial photos that a workable site had been organized by developers; but, everyone in the community were lulled by a false sense of security that they had up to five years to start formulating a response to their new neighbor.
Five Years Fly By
In early summer of 2011, the residents of Katemcy noticed activity on the former Kruse farm, one of the properties purchased by Proppant Specialists, LLC. Equipment and materials were being moved on the site. Residents learned that Proppant had already contacted Central Texas Electric Cooperative to begin preparatory work on the site for their high electrical needs. Proppant had also been in contact with the Texas Department of Transportation about requirements for braking lanes and ingress/egress points on Highway 87. The possible five year delay in development had been condensed into only a few months.During the hot summer months, employees of Proppant companies moved into the former Davenport home in Katemcy. They began drilling test bores in the sandy fields in the center of the Proppant land holdings, on the former Davenport and Kruse farms. The employees had little or no contact with local residents, and the local residents made no attempt to welcome them to the community.The Katemcy and Camp Air communities began discussing what their responses would be once Proppant filed for their permits; but, there was no sense of urgency to this plan.
On August 12, the News received, via email, a submission for a legal notice to be published in the August 17, 2011, edition. That notice was the application for an air quality permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), application #97199. It had already been filed with TCEQ and had no confidentiality restrictions on its release, so I forwarded it on to a few people in Katemcy and Camp Air.On August 17, 2011, the notice was published in the News. The clock had begun ticking. All respondents had only 30 days in which to gather their facts, develop their questions, figure out what was contestable, compose those responses, and get them back to TCEQ by September 16, 2011. In the meantime, the residents of Pontotoc learned of a planned frac sand mine just north of downtown. They began communicating with the Katemcy group and decided that combining their resources would be much more effective than trying to fight individual battles.Email distribution lists were developed to help disseminate information more rapidly among all those involved. Activity for the remainder of August was concentrated on discovering what the air quality permit involved, and what were considered as valid objections. In the process of gathering information, both groups realized they would need to have an actual meeting, though time was short, in order to be able to involve residents who had not had the benefit of the email commentary.Katemcy and Camp AirA meeting was scheduled for Sunday, September 4, 2011, at the Peter's Prairie Schoolhouse. Almost 100 attendees heard a presentation led by Gerry Gamel that explained the TCEQ permit process, the deadlines for comment, and the other issues that would be facing opponents of the sand mining facility. David Huie and Larry Lehmberg with the Hickory Underground Water Conservation District were in attendance at the Katemcy meeting by invitation. Mr. Lehmberg noted that the Proppant management had been in the Mason area and Mr. Lehmberg inquired if any attempt had been made to contact them to get their side in the issue. Gamel responded that the Katemcy respondents only had 30 days to respond, and the Proppant response would most likely be to stop those comments prior to submission to TCEQ.Mr. Huie told the assemblage that the Hickory had no authority to actually investigate the effects of sand mining upon the hydrology of the aquifer, or to determine, in advance, if such mining would be detrimental to water quality. He encouraged the residents to have their water quality tested prior to the beginning of operations by Proppant so that, at a future date, it would be easier to tell if private wells had been compromised by the mining process.It had been learned, during this discovery period, that frac sand mining is a largely unregulated industry. Proppant is required to obtain only two permits: an air quality permit; and, permits to allow for pumping from the Hickory Aquifer. What was also learned, and was discussed at the Katemcy meeting, was that oversight of violations of those permits is virtually nonexistent. TCEQ has only one testing device for the state. When they do test, they are testing for a particulate that the EPA states is the incorrect hazard material. Additionally, the modeling method for testing allows TCEQ to test near a sand mining operation, and to then test at distantly placed and completely unrelated sites and to "average" the results, which will always result in levels far below trigger amounts.At the end of the Katemcy meeting, no decision was made on requested a contested case hearing from TCEQ, as the Pontotoc group had decided to schedule their own meeting a week later. The Katemcy group decided that they would wait to make their decision until after that meeting.
The residents of Pontotoc held their informational meeting on September 10th, 2011, at the Pontotoc Community Center. They welcomed as their guest speaker, Marc McCord, creator of the FracDallas.org website, an information resource that had been heavily used by the Katemcy group, and that had been repeated for the Pontotoc gathering. Mr. McCord explained the health hazards of silica, the end product of frac sand mining. He noted that the dust that people see in the air is a natural by-product of agricultural endeavors, driving down dirt roads and even the effects of the severe drought affecting the entire state. Silica, he explained, was microscopic and was thus invisible to the casual observer.There is, he reported, a medical link between certain respiratory conditions, certain cancers and other health conditions, and silica exposure. One of the primary conditions is silicosis, a condition caused by inhalation of the silica granules. The microscopic particles have a cumulative effect upon the body, and it is an effect that is irreversible. Those suffering from silicosis do experience deteriorating ability to breathe, and will eventually die.Mr. McCord explained that the silica from agricultural and other businesses in the area was always present. However, in the areas around frac sand mining operations, that silica exposure is at a much higher rate. He also noted that, because of its microscopic size, it is subject to dispersion by wind up to 20 miles away. It can also be transported as residue on the many sand trucks that travel up and down the highways, so exposure can occur many miles away from the actual mines, though the concentration is much higher at those production sites.After Mr. McCord finished, residents asked questions and discussed the information that had been gathered by the Katemcy and Pontotoc groups. Patricia Fleming, one of the organizers of the Pontotoc meeting, reported that the Texas Water Development Board had referred her to the Texas Water Code, which would indicate that Mr. Huie's comments at Katemcy were in error. The Water Code, as researched by Mrs. Fleming and others, indicates that, not only can Hickory ask questions about hydrological effects, it was one of their legally mandated responsibilities.The Hickory UGWD has a meeting scheduled for Thursday, September 15, 2011, at their office on the square in Brady. One of their first agenda items is consideration of the well permit requests by Proppant for the Katemcy plant. The agenda does not indicate that Hickory is planning to discuss the mining effects upon the aquifer; but, the residents of Katemcy and Pontotoc decided that they would attend the Hickory meeting and raise issues beyond just the well permits. Hickory has no history of denying any permits for wells in its coverage area.
At the Mason County Commissioners' Court meeting of September 12, 2011, residents of Katemcy and Pontotoc appeared before the Court to appeal for support. Judge Jerry Bearden and the Commissioners explained that they had absolutely no regulatory authority over the sand mines, and that they had included the groups on the agenda to allow for the Court to become more informed on the issue.A prepared statement was read explaining the lack of oversight by the TCEQ and Hickory, as well as repeating the health hazards to both air and water to residents. It was stressed that this was not an issue just for Precinct 3 and 2, not restricted to just Katemcy or Pontotoc; but, to everyone in Mason County. Additional sand deposits are already being examined for the financial viability of developing more mines in the area. Additionally, it was stressed that the many trucks already passing through town would increase exponentially, spreading the silica even further through the area. Judge Jerry Bearden even noted that, during the presentation, nine sand trucks had gone by the windows on the north side of the square.The Court allowed everyone present to make any points they wished, and then asked what the group wanted from them. After some side discussions, the response was finally given that the groups wanted to see that the Court understood the severity of the issue, and that they acknowledged that the threat was not limited to just one geographic area of the county.The Court met till 3:45 p.m., and prior to adjourning, issued the following statement:"Mason County Commissioners Court went on record supporting the request by citizens to receive more education and information concerning the effects on air quality, water quality and water usage by frac sandmining facilities proposed to be located in Mason County."The two groups have indicated that they will be appearing at the September 15, 2011, meeting of the Hickory UGWD at 6:00 p.m. in Brady. They have also asserted that they will prepare their opposition letters to be submitted to TCEQ prior to the September 16 deadline, and that they are requesting both a contested case hearing, and an extension of the discovery and comment period in order to level the playing field for the residents.Any opposing opinions are welcomed for submission to the News. This article, though written with a personal interest in opposing the plants, also fairly represents the author's recollections of the process involved, the meetings that were held, and the issues that were discussed. If any errors in fact have been made, or any of the events were incorrectly recalled, a correction will be printed and the person making the correction given the opportunity to explain their clarification.