For folks across Texas, growth, like new houses and roads, also comes with the arrival of an unwelcome neighbor: a concrete batch plant.
Those living near these plants have raised alarms about air quality issues that can contribute to health problems.
For years activists and those affected by these plants have pushed for stricter regulations on how and where they operate. Texas lawmakers did not pass proposed legislation this past session that would have put new rules on these plants. Now, advocates hoping to regulate pollution from concrete batch plants are looking for new ways to address air quality issues.
Jasper Scherer has been covering all this for the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News and joined Texas Standard to discuss. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
The Texas Standard: Remind us briefly about what these concrete batch plants are and why they’ve become such an issue, especially in the Houston area, it appears.
Jasper Sherer: As you mentioned, these are really essential to kind of fuel the rapid growth that we’re seeing around Texas. They basically create the concrete that’s used to build the roads and buildings in all these fast-expanding neighborhoods.
But the side effect is that they emit these tiny dust particles that can spread over nearby neighborhoods. And these particles are small enough to get into people’s lungs and bloodstreams and they’ve been linked to all sorts of serious health problems, like heart attacks and lung disease.
And yes, in Houston, this has become an especially big issue. You know, there’s no zoning in Houston so these plants have been sprouting up a lot near homes and schools without local officials really being able to force them elsewhere.
Well, what about the legislative solutions that were proposed and what happened that kept them from moving forward in the Lege?
Yeah, so advocates and some lawmakers have been pushing for this for a few sessions now, and they’ve never really had much success in this. This session was another continuation of that.
There were a number of proposals on the table, like stricter air monitoring, monitoring for pollutants, and just several changes aimed at putting a bigger minimum distance between plants in nearby homes. Most of those didn’t pass.
There were a few smaller changes that got folded into what’s known as the “sunset bill” for Texas’ environmental regulatory agency, which basically allows the agency to continue operating. And one of the big changes was to give local residents more time to make comments and ask for hearings to challenge proposed new plants. You know, that was not quite what all the advocates were going for at the start of the session.
Well, what was the opposition to these changes? Did it come primarily from the industry?
Yes, primarily from the industry.
They argue that they’re already pretty stiffly regulated as it is, that they have these measures in place that kind of keep the spread of the dust under control, and that basically any sort of overregulation in their eyes would threaten the ability of the plants to continue providing the materials for new construction.
Well, what about next steps for those concerned about the air quality around these plants?
So even though all these changes didn’t end up making it through the Legislature, there is this separate process – TCEQ, the environmental regulatory agency, is considering making changes to its permitting rules for concrete batch plants. And some of those would include some parts of failed legislation in the session, like setting lower concrete production limits for plants and, you know, actually increasing the minimum distance from nearby properties.
So we should get more details on what the final draft of the rule looks like in January next year. So folks interested in that should keep tabs on that part of it.