TCEQ hearing draws large crowd; turns contentious

East Aldine residents oppose expansion of Existing Concrete Plant

By Marina Sugg for the Northeast News

EAST ALDINE – On Monday, June 12, 2023, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) held a meeting and protest hearing (the “hearing”) regarding an application filed by a concrete batch plant (the “plant”) operating under the name Yellow Jacket Readymix, LLC (“Yellow Jacket”). The meeting was held at the offices of the East Aldine District, 2909 E. Aldine Amphitheater Drive, Houston, TX 77039.

Yellow Jacket is located in the heart of East Aldine at 2219 Hartwick, Houston, TX 77093, between Aldine-Westfield Rd. and Halls Bayou. It is right in the middle of a single-family residential neighborhood and within feet of several private residences. Yellow Jacket is one of nine (9) concrete plants — seven (7) concrete batch plants and two (2) concrete crushing plants — located within a three (3) mile radius of Yellow Jacket.

For years, the residents who live on Hartwick nearest the plant have complained to the TCEQ, their elected officials, county officials, and to the news media, about the numerous health and quality of life issues the residents experience due to the dust, noise, heavy truck traffic, and road damage caused by Yellow Jacket’s employees, sub-contractors, and customers.

On January 18, 2023, Yellow Jacket applied to the TCEQ to amend their permit for the plant by adding a second cement silo. Although Yellow Jacket’s request also included a reduction of hourly concrete production, operating hours, and a proposal to not operate the facility at night, the addition of the second silo would bring the operational capacity at the plant to two (2) cement silos and one (1) fly ash silo.

Adding another silo means more truck traffic, more dust.

The June 12 hearing was open to the public. The panel sitting at the head table consisted of approximately five (5) representatives from the TCEQ, including Sheldon Wayne, Assistant Public Interest Counsel (OPIC). Also sitting at the head table were two (2) men who claimed to be the owners of Yellow Jacket (the “Applicant”).

The audience consisted of about 75 attendees including numerous East Aldine area residents who lived in close proximity to Yellow Jacket; State Senator Carol Alvarado; State Representative Armando Walle; F. Chan Tysor, Senior Assistant Harris County Attorney, Environmental Division; representatives of Air Alliance Houston; East Aldine District; BakerRipley-East Aldine Campus; members of the Green Forest Civic Club (GFCC), members of the East Aldine Civic Association, and Houston Chronicle Climate and Environment Reporter, Rebekah Ward.

The format of the hearing included an unrecorded “Question and Answer” period, followed by a recorded “Formal Comments” period. During the Q&A period, the public was allowed to ask questions of the TCEQ and/or the Applicant. The questions were to be responded to by TCEQ and/or the Applicant.

During the Formal Comments period, the public could voice concerns or comments. TCEQ or the Applicant, however, were not to respond to the concerns or comments. Instead, at a later date, TCEQ would respond to the individual in writing.

Questions asked during the Q&A period of the meeting:

State Senator Carol Alvarado asked for a definite answer on how “night time” was defined for permit applicants. TCEQ didn’t give an adequate response. She also asked what hours the concrete batch plant owners were operating, and they couldn’t answer that either.

State Representative Armando Walle asked what could TCEQ do to ensure that communities close to a batch plant were able to enjoy a quality of life free of noise at all hours of the night. TCEQ did not provide a clear answer.

Kenneth Sugg, Jr., long-time resident of East Aldine and a member of GFCC, explained that he was a cement truck driver and was well aware of what actually took place at concrete batch plants. When the moderator tried to cut him off because he was making comments rather than asking questions, the audience shouted out, “Let him speak!” The moderator explained and encouraged Mr. Sugg to save his comments for the recorded session of the hearing. She added that Mr. Sugg was making some valid and important comments and that he should say them during the recorded session of the hearing. Mr. Sugg then asked, “Do you have a computer model that includes the various conditions of the materials being used?” TCEQ replied that they did use computer models, but did not say if the models included the various conditions of the materials being used. Mr. Sugg then added that over 100 lbs of cement powder did not go into the mixer. Instead, the dust got stuck on the chutes of truck and then went into the air while loading.

Resident Eric Garcia, who lives in very close proximity to Yellow Jacket, asked the panel, “How would you like to try sleeping through all of this noise?” as he played a recording of the loud noise generated at the plant during the night. He said he had many photos and videos of the activity going on at the plant during all hours of the day and night. He also said that he had met with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and had shown them the photos and videos. He said the agents he met with could not believe what was going on at the plant.

Attorney Tysor asked the TCEQ and the Applicant to define “night.” He asked them to tell him what time did “night” begin and end. He also asked them to explain the undefined use of the word “operate.” He asked the panel to more specifically define the term to include operation of motorized equipment including, but not limited to, material delivery trucks, earth moving equipment, conveyors, sweepers, and fans or blowers. Neither the TCEQ nor the Applicant could give a definitive answer.

East Aldine resident Felipe Avila, a BakerRipley-East Aldine Campus Community Engineer, asked several questions including what was the TCEQ’s mission statement, and why did the Applicant not use land located around the airport. TCEQ read Mr. Avila their mission statement, and said that the Applicant was using land they already owned.

Resident David Gonzales, who also lives in very close proximity to Yellow Jacket, said his family was experiencing many health issues he felt were directly related to the poor air quality created by Yellow Jacket. He asked what would Yellow Jacket or TCEQ do if the residents blocked the trucks from coming down Hartwick? Someone from the panel replied that the residents had a right to protest as long as it was in a peaceful manner.

Someone asked what was the OPIC for the TCEQ doing at the hearing? TCEQ OPIC Sheldon Wayne, responded that he was there to help facilitate the hearing and was always available to the public. He stated anyone could reach him at his phone number, 512-239-3144.

Resident Jose Macias asked what action TCEQ took after a company was found in violation. TCEQ said a number of steps were taken including, but not limited to, sending a letter to the company with a timeframe in which to correct the violation, and sending an investigator to the site.

Selina Valdez, President, GFCC, asked how many employees Yellow Jacket employed at the facility on Hartwick. The applicant replied that they had about 25 employees. Ms. Valdez’s concern was that, to the best of her knowledge, the plant only employed about three people and that the plant was not creating a substantial amount of economic development in the community.

Comments made during the Public Comments period of the hearing:

In part, Representative Walle stated that concrete batch plants should never be sharing fence lines with homes, schools, churches, and parks. He added that he would continue to help his constituents fight this injustice.

Attorney Tysor commented that the county had concerns regarding the use of the word “night” and that the amended permit be defined as describing night as “the period 30 minutes after sunset and 30 minutes before sunrise.”

Long-time East Aldine resident Marina Flores Sugg, Vice President, GFCC, stated that she followed much of what happened in East Aldine through social media platforms such as NextDoor. She said that nothing good was ever said about concrete batch plants, only complaints. Ms. Sugg also said that she had read studies that showed that East Aldine had a higher occurrence of respiratory and heart diseases than did the rest of Harris County. She closed by saying, “In my opinion, our civil rights are being violated!”

Kenneth Sugg commented that TCEQ should require dust collectors on all cement plants.

Selina Valdez stated that at another concrete plant protest hearing, a choir teacher, had said that over 50% of the students had asthma.

Resident Chris Sustaita said she was concerned for the health of her grandchildren whom she took to the parks around East Aldine on a regular bases. She said TCEQ was doing wrong and that they would have to answer to a higher authority.

The hearing became heated at times when the audience felt the moderator of the meeting, a TCEQ representative, was cutting off some of the people who were at the mic.

For the benefit of the attendees, TCEQ had provided professional Spanish/English translators for the hearing. However, the hearing became very heated when the applicants would not wear earbuds to hear the English translation of what the Spanish speaking commenters were saying.

There was also an outcry of protest by the attendees when one of the applicants was texting while Senator Alvarado was speaking to him. She tried to get his attention by addressing him directly. He finally threw his phone on the table and asked her what she wanted.

Right before the hearing was adjourned, Kenneth Sugg stood up and asked for all the residents who lived within 200 yards of the plant to stand up. The moderator tried to get Mr. Sugg to sit down, but he persisted and again asked them to stand up. About 25 adults and children stood up. Then he addressed the panel saying, “These are the people you are affecting!”

The hearing ended with a general consensus that some progress had been made at the hearing, and that it was largely due to the fact that the community was becoming better organized and more educated in the perils of living in a community filled with concrete plants. Smaller groups then gathered to plan their next steps in their continued battle against concrete plants.

Also after the meeting, Attorney Tysor gave Selina Valdez a copy of a letter he had sent to TCEQ protesting the Yellow Jacket application. In his letter, Attorney Tysor states the following: “If TCEQ approves the Application it will be re-authorizing a facility under the Standard Permit, which fails to meet state and federal permitting requirements.”

Attorney Tysor also states in his letter, “TCEQ should not re-authorize this facility to operate under the Standard Permit because it is not protective of public health, general welfare, and physical property.”

In a later statement made on social media, State Senator Carol Alvarado said she “Attended a public meeting regarding yet another concrete batch plant in #Aldine. I appreciate the many members of the community who showed up. The health & quality of life of our neighbors matter. We can’t let our neighborhoods continue to be contaminated. I am hopeful that @TCEQ will help our vulnerable community.”

Also in a later statement made on social media, Representative Walle stated: “We’ve fought for over a decade to get any action being taken to address the negative impacts of concrete batch plants. The operators of Yellow Jacket demonstrated arrogance & disdain for our community. I will never allow our community to be disrespected. I am proud to represent good hardworking people that all they want is for state government to address their needs. Batch plants sharing fence lines with homes, schools, churches, and parks should never happen.”

The fight continues! Yes we can! “Si se puede!”

By Marina Flores Sugg, East Aldine resident and Vice President of Green Forest Civic Club