Energy & Environment

TCEQ strengthens pollution-limiting requirements for concrete batch plants, particularly in Greater Houston

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, after pushback and outcry from stakeholders in the Houston area, has updated its air quality standards permit for concrete batch plants, which are known to emit fine particulate matter that can be harmful to human health. Some say the new requirements do not go far enough.

Community members attended a TCEQ meeting on April 7, 2022 in protest of a proposed concrete batch plant in northeast Harris County.
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Community members attended a TCEQ meeting on April 7, 2022 in protest of a proposed concrete batch plant in northeast Harris County.

Texas' environmental regulatory agency has adopted more stringent air pollution standards for concrete batch plants, which in the Houston area have drawn the ire of nearby impacted residents as well as local elected officials.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on Wednesday updated its air quality standards permit for concrete batch plants, which are known to emit fine particulate matter such as crystalline silica that can lead to lung disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The amended standards will require operators of those industrial facilities to limit their hourly and yearly production rates as well as their stockpile sizes, along with expanding the buffer zones on their properties and their methods for controlling dust emissions.

The changes were applauded by both Air Alliance Houston and Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, who in 2021 filed a lawsuit against the TCEQ as well as a complaint with the federal Environmental Protection Agency over Texas' permit for concrete batch plants. But both Menefee and Jennifer Hadayia, the executive director of the nonprofit Air Alliance Houston, said they wished the new standards were even more stringent and would have a more immediate impact.

The new set of requirements applies to permits granted after the changes were adopted Wednesday. Existing permit holders are not required to adhere to the new pollution-limiting guidelines until two years afterward or until their 10-year permits come up for renewal, whichever period is longer, according to the TCEQ.

"The updated permit gives plants currently operating a 10-year window to continue polluting under junk standards," Menefee said in a statement released by his office. "Fifth Ward, Aldine, Kashmere Gardens and neighborhoods across our county deserve better. I plan to continue pushing the TCEQ to make sure our communities are protected."

According to TCEQ documentation provided by the Harris County Attorney's Office, the state agency voluntarily updated its pollution standards for concrete batch plants based on the results of an air quality analysis conducted in response to "public concern about potential health impacts" associated with the plants and so their operation is "protective of human health and the environment."

RELATED: Harris County sues concrete batch plant, alleging multiple environmental violations over three-year period

Among the changes, all temporary and permanent concrete batch plants in Texas will be limited to annual production of 650,000 cubic yards and materials stockpiles that are no more than 1.5 acres in total area. Specialty plants with 100-foot setbacks from their property lines will be limited to producing 131,400 cubic yards per year, while plants with a 200-foot setback can produce up to 262,800 cubic yards annually.

Many concrete batch plant facilities have permits to operate 24 hours a day. Residents will often complain of the bright lights and noise at night.
Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media
Many concrete batch plant facilities have permits to operate 24 hours a day. Residents will often complain of the bright lights and noise at night.

The new standards are especially stringent in the Houston-area counties of Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery and Waller, where single truck mix plants must have a minimum setback of 200 feet and an hourly production limit of 200 cubic yards. The minimum setback in most other Texas counties is 100 feet.

Plants with a minimum setback of 200 feet must also keep their stockpiles at least 150 feet away from their property lines under the new requirements, which also gives them more options for limiting dust pollution, such as through the use of vacuum trucks.

RELATED: Texans affected by pollution from concrete batch plants push state agency to tighten regulations

"Overall this is a step in the right direction," Hadayia said. "Our communities are inundated with concrete pollution. That's batch plants and concrete crushers and hot mix asphalt plants, which are known to emit particulate matter, one of the most deadly and concerning air pollutions out there."

But like Menefee, Hadayia also said she does not think the new standards will go far enough to curb the pollution caused by concrete-creating facilities. That's partly because she wonders how strictly they will be enforced by the TCEQ.

Hadayia said language in the new permit – such as the use of "may" instead of "shall" – suggests that compliance could be largely voluntary and that the state agency might not be strict in its enforcement of the amended requirements.

"Enforcement remains weak," Hadayia said of the TCEQ. "A permit, a law, is only as good as its enforcement."