LIBERTY HILL, Texas (KXAN) – The air was thick as the sun was setting.
The temperature had dropped just a little by Monday evening, but it didn’t do much to help with the sweltering heat.
It didn’t faze the more than 70 homeowners, who live along or near County Road 284 in Williamson County, and who had gathered to talk to KXAN investigators.
What was on their mind?
Wilco Aggregates, a rock-crushing company, recently filed an application with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for an air quality permit.
“This was my oasis. It was my peace. I moved out to the country,” Jodi McCumber said. “I never imagined that I would have to fight so hard for peace. And that’s – that’s what it’s come down to – our way of living is in jeopardy.”
McCumber owns a honey farm, which is less than three miles from the proposed site, and is worried that peace will be destroyed if the rock-crushing operation moves in near her property.
“I am super concerned about the effects that it could have on our honeybees. We face diseases every day in the beekeeping world and chemicals being applied to properties and stuff like that floating through the air,” McCumber said. “So particulate matter, floating into the beehives and possibly causing their death is a huge thing.”
Water, air and roads
Cattle ranchers and farmers who have lived along the county road for generations expressed concerns too.
Jacqueline Frame lives less than half a mile from the proposed site.
“My family has been out here for 35 years, we are third-generation farmers and fourth generation to own this particular piece of property,” Frame said.
She explained that her family’s health is why she’s concerned.
“My son has asthma, a lot of kids around here, you know, suffer from something as common as asthma. And we could be looking at issues,” Frame added.
Marbert Moore fears wells drying up and contamination to their water.
“This is way beyond just the amount of dust,” Moore said.
The homeowners have wells and get their water from the Trinity Aquifer, but they worry the amount used by the operation could lead to water shortages.
Another concern is their narrow county road which they described as not being designed for large rock-hauling trucks.
“Everybody’s house is precious to them. Everybody’s got families, they’ve been paying money for all these years. I’ve been paying on my house for 20 years to have somebody come in and basically destroy it because of their business operations when we don’t need more of that type of product,” Moore explained.
‘They love the land’
Wilco Aggregates said the area it will be using for the operation is less than 150 acres on the Armadillo Ranch which already has an existing rock-cutting quarry.
“The current generation of property owners have owned the 2000+ acre ranch since the early 1970s,” said Harold Chapman, owner of Wilco Aggregates.
Chapman, who is out of state, emailed a joint statement from him and the landowner, David Youngquist.
“They do not want to see the ranch developed into a residential community that could contain over 2000 homes. The current owners are interested in improving and preserving the ranch. They plan to place proceeds from royalties of rock crushing into an endowment created for the purpose of ranch maintenance,” Chapman explained.
He added that the lease would be 7.5 years and the landowner shares the same concerns about dust and water use as other homeowners in the area.
“They love the land: I will be under a microscope by the family that far exceeds oversight of the TECQ,” Chapman said.
Youngquist who has also been out of state said the joint statement was sufficient when asked by KXAN investigators for an interview and any additional comment.
Chapman’s company also crushes rock in Jarrell. He said it’s used to build roads and for bedding underground water and sewer lines.
“Due to transportation costs, the crushed rock from my Jarrell plant is not economically feasible to be sold in Liberty Hill. The current and projected growth in the Liberty Hill area creates an opportunity for a rock-crushing facility to be constructed in western Williamson County,” Chapman explained.
He added that much of the rock around Liberty Hill is too soft to be approved by the state for road base and gravel to bed underground utilities, but the proposed site has a belt of exposed rock that meets state requirements.
Chapman said there is some misinformation about the operation which has created concerns.
“The machinery I use to crush rocks will be connected to existing PEC electric lines which is much more environmentally friendly than diesel engines and produces less noise. The closest home to the existing quarry operation is the landowner’s home,” explained Chapman.
He also said that the equipment will not be mobile but fixed in place for the duration of the operation.
“We will use water for dust mitigation. The existing quarry typically holds 4-6 feet of water which is replenished by rain. One well will be drilled to augment that supply during extended dry periods. Roads will be watered daily (except during rainy periods) to limit dust. On a similar operation we use about 50,000 gallons of water a day,” Chapman wrote in the emailed statement.
He explained that the operation would have the capacity to produce a maximum of 500 tons an hour.
“The area where we will stockpile and process crushed rock will not exceed five acres,” Chapman said.
TCEQ said a public meeting will be held about the current permit, but a date has not been scheduled yet.
“The Executive Director will review and respond to all comments received, both written and orally at the meeting, during the comment period by filing a formal Response to Comments (RTC) with the Office of the Chief Clerk. Once the RTC is filed, a final decision on the permit will be made,” said Estella Wieser, media relations specialist with TCEQ.
KXAN investigators found TCEQ records showing four complaints have been filed against Wilco Aggregates from 2020 to this year at another operation in Williamson County.
The complaints included dust impacting a nearby property and odor.
The TCEQ investigation found violations including, “failure to control emission opacity,” and “failure to install and operate permanently mounted spray bars.”
TCEQ said the company was sent a Notice of Violation and required to take corrective action necessary to resolve the violations.
Wilco Aggregates said that more spray bars were added, which is the structure used to support and apply water sprays for dust suppression.
Chapman told KXAN investigators that the company is in compliance and will be leaving that location in the next six months to move a few miles away.
Lack of oversight
Williamson County said it has no regulatory authority over this type of operation.
The Precinct Two Commissioners Office has heard from families concerned and has requested TCEQ to do a full review.
Families who live nearby said they need more answers.
They explained that an environmental study needs to be done to show the impact on their well water, livestock, bees, and nearby national wildlife refuge.
“How much dust is going to be allowed to be kicked up? What is our plan for keeping it down? Is it going to affect our homes and do damage to the outside of our homes? Is it going to fall into our cattle feed and kill our cattle or make them extremely sick,” McCumber asked.
Williamson County has no Groundwater Conservation District which regulates the spacing and production of water wells.
The concerned families said there is no regulation to prevent large consumers from coming to town and pumping the aquifer dry.
“There’s no requirement in Williamson County stating that they have to recycle that water. So, they could literally just continue to pump clean drinking water out of our aquifers with no regulation. And there are other counties that have water districts set up to where they do regulate that and they do force them to recycle that water instead of pulling our drinking water out of the ground,” McCumber said.
KXAN investigators have asked TCEQ how many rock-crushing operations have permits in Williamson County, and how the number compares to surrounding counties. As of this report, the data was not ready.
Moore said they all want a better understanding of the operation and are trying to fund a hydrogeologic study.
“This is people that have been studying what’s happening with groundwater in Texas for decades,” Moore explained. “So, the hydrogeologic study right will be vital like to understand can the aquifer support it.”
Dalton Huey, investigative producer and reporter, contributed to this report.