AUSTIN, Texas - Wind-blown dust has led to a discovery that has residents in a Southeast Austin neighborhood concerned.
In the spring, Knollwood residents found out TCEQ had recently granted a permit for a nearby permanent rock crushing plant at 300 Edwin Lane. Then, they learned of another nearby permit application in progress for 8811 Hergotz Lane.
"We started digging in, and then we found out, ‘Oh my god, look at that,’" said Victor Martinez, a Knollwood resident.
They learned that, in total, six plants are currently operating within about a mile and a half radius of the neighborhood.
"When you come out in the morning and your car is covered in dust, you say, ‘Well, you know, it was dusty yesterday,’" said Martinez. "Well, turns out it's because they're crushing all this rock and concrete and all of those pollutants are coming over with the wind."
The concern goes beyond a little dust.
"This rock crushing plant crushes concrete, and in concrete there's a lot of dust, but it includes silica dust," said Chris Lupone, a Knollwood resident. "Silica dust carries a risk of silicosis, which is a really serious lung disease."
According to OSHA, "respirable crystalline silica" is created when crushing stone rock or concrete. Inhalation can cause risk of serious diseases including silicosis.
Residents spoke up at an informational meeting hosted by TCEQ on Sept. 26.
"My concern is that there doesn't seem to be really that much incentive for any of these plants to be compliant," said one person who spoke.
"Is five enough or should we expect six, seven, eight, nine, ten, one of these concrete plants in every single field out there?" said another. "When is enough, enough?"
"It’s just a dog and pony show," said Martinez, who also attended the meeting.
"We were all very frustrated that basically they said that the only recourse we had was legal."
Martinez voiced frustration that it takes filing complaints for TCEQ to investigate.
"When you complain, they don't go immediately, obviously, because it's not an emergency. They schedule it, and then they go see it, and when they go see it, maybe they got tipped off, maybe not. Maybe it's a good day, and they're not polluting that day, and they don't see anything," said Martinez. "And even if they see something, all they do is a slap on the wrist. Absolutely nothing happens to those companies that are polluting the air."
A spokesperson for TCEQ told FOX 7 that responding to complaints makes up the majority of investigations, but TCEQ may initiate other types of investigations such as permit reviews and aggregate production evaluations.
A rock crusher can operate under a few permit forms including a ‘standard permit.’
"If an operator wants to authorize a rock crusher under the standard permit or PBR, they have to meet the standard conditions to claim that permit, which include distance limitations, operating hours, throughput, and emission limitations," a spokesperson for TCEQ wrote. "Rock crushing permits regulate things such as required equipment to control emissions and dust, opacity of emissions, recordkeeping requirements, throughput and hours or operation, and distance limits to the nearest property lines."
Martin Mehner, who lives in close proximity to a couple of the plants, told FOX 7 he has documented the dust in videos and made numerous complaints to TCEQ over the years.
He received a response to his most recent complaint on Sept. 29th regarding a plant on Ramirez Lane.
In the TCEQ response letter that Mehner shared with FOX 7, the investigator noted, "the site was active; however, the crusher was not operating during my observation."
The company involved responded to requests for documentation that included the "throughput per hour" and "road and work area cleaning and dust suppression logs."
The letter noted "insufficient evidence to cite a violation" and found "no violations were documented during the course of this investigation."
MORE 7 ON YOUR SIDE STORIES:
- City distributing Project Connect funds for anti-displacement efforts
- Hail damage: What you need to know to file an insurance claim
- What to know as student loan payments start up again
"If a violation of the statutes, regulations, or permit conditions for the facility are discovered, TCEQ has enforcement authority under TWC § 7.002 which includes authority to bring an administrative enforcement case including penalties, corrective actions and in certain circumstances to refer the violations to the Office of the Attorney General for civil enforcement," according to the TCEQ spokesperson.
"I would like to see the state of Texas value human life and to have them consider where they allow these sorts of industrial operations to take place - not near residential homes," said Lupone.
"It seems like they're in the business of protecting industry, not the people," said Martinez.
The Sept. 26 meeting marked the end of the public comment period for the Hergotz Lane permit application.
According to TCEQ, "the Executive Director will respond to all comments received during the comment period by filing a formal Response to Comments (RTC) which will be mailed to all commenters and individuals on the mailing list that was provided during the comment period through the permitting process. All timely filed comments will be reviewed and considered prior to the final decision on the application."
The TCEQ will make a decision no later than 30 days after the end of the public comment period.