Lush green trees and backyard chickens dot the landscape of ranch-style homes on a country road just outside of Mansfield. Neighbors once feared air pollution and road traffic from a proposed concrete batch plant would ruin this peaceful community they call home. 

Three years and thousands of dollars later, the group of Tarrant County homeowners became the first in the state to successfully convince the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to deny a concrete batch plant permit request in 2021. 

(Alexis Allison | Fort Worth Report)

The ramifications of that legal battle continue to be felt today, with 2023 set to be a crucial year for concrete batch plant regulations and the future of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Lawmakers will soon debate whether – and how – to take action on the issue during the legislative session, which kicks off in January. 

“Our case did ignite some (people) to look much closer at the TCEQ’s process and the fairness and the balancing that should be in that process, which was certainly missing,” said Roger Hurlbut, an attorney and neighbor who helped coordinate the effort to oppose the batch plant. “The system was designed to ensure that, basically, a batch plant could go in … The people that were affected by it, the neighbors, didn’t have much chance.”

State lawmakers are also expected to vote on a bill renewing the TCEQ’s operations and identifying areas for improvement as part of the state’s sunset review process, which assesses an agency’s performance every 12 years. A commission, made up mostly of state lawmakers, issued a report in November recommending more transparency and tougher penalties on frequent violators of pollution regulations. 

As legislators head to Austin this month, TCEQ staff are considering new air quality standards for companies seeking to build a concrete batch plant. 

What is a concrete batch plant?

At concrete batch plants, workers combine materials like sand, water, cement and other raw materials to create concrete for construction sites. In Texas, concrete, cement and other aggregate industries (such as gravel and sand quarries) generate more than $10 billion in revenues each year, according to the Texas Aggregates & Concrete Association.

Commission staff are conducting an air quality analysis of acceptable amounts of pollution at concrete batch plants – a controversial issue at the center of the Mansfield legal battle. 

The Mansfield group successfully argued in court that emissions of a certain pollutant at concrete batch plants, crystalline silica, were entirely prohibited by Texas regulations at the time. The commission later amended its permit language to clarify that crystalline silica emissions were not prohibited. 

“The odds were against us, and I think the odds are still against most people going against these batch plants,” Hurlbut said. “But I think the tide is changing, when there are people – like there seem to be right now – who are addressing the unfairness of the system.”

The review process will address public concern about how the TCEQ’s air quality standards protect human health and the environment, said Estella Wieser, a commission spokesperson. 

“Given that science and technology are constantly improving we routinely review rules to ensure that all permits are held to this standard,” Wieser wrote by email. “Due to this and the growing public concern, the agency initiated an update to the Standard Air Permit for the Concrete Batch Plants.”

Commission staff are expected to release a draft of proposed amendments to the permit in early 2023, Wieser said. Environmental advocates, residents and industry groups will weigh in during a 30-day public comment period and a public meeting after publication of the proposal. 

Josh Leftwich, president and chief executive of the Texas Aggregates & Concrete Association, said the review is likely to be a very technical and complex process. Any changes should be science and evidence-based, he added. 

What’s the timeline for the amendment process?

  • November 2022: Stakeholder meetings
  • Early 2023: Proposal publication, 30-day public comment period and public meeting
  • Mid-2023: Adoption of new policy at TCEQ commissioners meeting
  • Effective date of policy changes will be specified in final permit

“As they’re working through that, we will definitely be involved and making sure we’re using the best available technologies for our plants and whatever best management practices that we can implement as well,” Leftwich said. “Our members are very well aware of what is going on and we will adapt if anything does change.” 

Cliff Kaplan, program director of the environmentally focused Hill Country Alliance in the Austin area, is a member of Texans for Responsible Aggregate Mining. The statewide coalition, which also includes the Mansfield group, is pushing for more environmental regulations on concrete batch plants, along with sand quarries and gravel mines. 

Kaplan and his fellow advocates are urging the TCEQ to make the results of its air quality review public. The commission should also take into account the cumulative impact of plants being permitted in close proximity to each other and to communities of color, Kaplan said. 

“The TCEQ has an opportunity here to demonstrate a real desire to make their processes more inclusive, more transparent and to make their permits more protective of communities, and we hope that they’ll take that opportunity,” Kaplan said. 

Bills would increase public participation in concrete plant permits

While the permit amendment process continues, state lawmakers also are paying attention to growing concern over the impact of concrete batch plants on the environment and public health. 

The site where Bosque Solutions planned to build a concrete batch plant in Tarrant County, just outside of Mansfield. The company’s permit request was denied after a three-year legal battle. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)

Ahead of the legislative session’s kickoff in January, several legislators – including state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth – have introduced bills expanding opportunities for public participation in the commission’s permit approval process, among other proposals. 

Currently, residents living within 440 yards of a concrete batch plant can apply for a contested case hearing, or the formal legal process of opposing a permit application. Collier wants to double that distance to 880 yards, and allow other people located near a proposed plant — including representatives of hospitals, schools or places of worship — to apply for a hearing. 

Collier, who did not respond to requests for comment through her office, told The Texas Tribune she understands the need to produce more concrete that builds more infrastructure in the state. But health and safety should also be of concern, she said. 

“Schools, daycares, places of worship and medical facilities have the same potential to be affected by the dust … produced by these batch plants, and those implications can extend far beyond the 440-yard setback required by statute,” Collier said. 

Collier has introduced similar legislation in previous sessions without success. That’s also true of state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, who has filed legislation that would require companies to host a community meeting prior to moving forward in the permit process. His proposed bills would also limit the ability of companies to build plants in cities like Houston, which has no zoning regulations. 

Those proposals have run into Republican opposition, but Johnson plans to persuade his colleagues by arguing that the plants hurt property values, which translates to fewer tax dollars for surrounding governments, he told The Texas Tribune. 

Texas lawmakers, including state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, have introduced legislation to expand public participation in the concrete batch plant permitting process. (Courtesy image | Wikimedia Commons)

Batch plants are misunderstood, industry association says

Legislation adding further regulations on concrete batch plants would likely face opposition from trade associations representing the aggregates industry. 

Leftwich, the president and chief executive of the Texas Aggregates & Concrete Association, said many Texans have misconceptions about how concrete batch plants operate. Plants operating by the TCEQ’s standards emit minimal emissions because there’s no crushing taking place on-site, leading to less dust, he said. 

With population growth booming in Texas, concrete batch plants are necessary to meet the demand for construction sites, Leftwich said. Their expansion is also necessary due to time constraints. Concrete mixtures harden quickly and must be transported to a site within 30 minutes. 

“You can’t just push them all to the countryside or the outskirts of town,” Leftwich said. “It looks like a lot of the leadership here during the (legislative) session are very focused on infrastructure, too. They’ve messaged that they are wanting to push more infrastructure here in Texas and get funding for infrastructure, and our materials are the building blocks of any infrastructure projects.” 

“At the end of the day, to really get most operators or the industry as a whole to use best management practices that are more protective of their neighbors and of Texas’ natural resources, some additional regulations are required.”

Cliff Kaplan, program director at Hill Country Alliance

Leftwich is confident that Texas concrete producers will adapt to regulations since they are “highly regulated as it is,” he said. But Kaplan argues that the industry is used to following tighter rules in other business-friendly states, while Texas has lagged behind on regulating plants to use better pollution controls.

“At the end of the day, to really get most operators or the industry as a whole to use best management practices that are more protective of their neighbors and of Texas’ natural resources, some additional regulations are required,” Kaplan said. 

Since helping lead the Mansfield group of homeowners to a legal victory in 2021, Hurlbut has taken a step back from the fight for regulations on batch plants. But he remains concerned that the TCEQ system is designed to ensure that plants are rubber stamped for approval. 

The commission must make major changes to how they notify residents about permit applications, which currently consists of a newspaper advertisement. Texans also need more help navigating the “byzantine” contested case hearing process, he added. 

“I always remain optimistic, but knowing how the sausage is made in bureaucracies, I can’t be expecting a whole lot,” Hurlbut said. “But we can always be hopeful.” 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Haley SamselEnvironmental Reporter

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org. Her coverage is made possible by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman...