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Environmental Board wants

Monday, March 11, 2002 by

Immediate action on landfills

Health and nuisance concerns should stop new contracts, says board

The Environmental Board voted enthusiastically Wednesday night to recommend that the City Council take immediate action to solve the health and nuisance problems reported by neighbors of the notorious landfill sites in Northeast Austin. The motion passed with the Board calling for the Council to refrain from renewing contracts with at least one of the solid waste landfills until steps are taken to determine what toxins from the landfill may be airborne and why area residents are getting sick.

Board Member Ramon Alvarez, who made the motion, said the noxious odors, and perhaps gases, that appear to be making nearby residents sick, need to be investigated as a health hazard before the City approves new contracts with Waste Management Inc. (WMI). “I think the city and county may have the ability to issue nuisance violations here,” he said. “If the city is not going to take some action here, or the state, clearly it’s going to have to go to the courts,” he added.

Chair Lee Leffingwell agreed, saying the odor that so many residents have complained about appears to be not just a nuisance but a health hazard and the appropriate health department needs to get involved.

Vice-chair Tim Jones elicited a round of applause from the attending crowd when he said the noxious odor and monitoring problems need to be solved before any new contracts for the landfill are approved by the City.

Several residents from neighborhoods near the two landfills spoke during Wednesday night’s public hearing before the Environmental Board. WMI and Browning-Ferris Industries Inc. own the two landfills near U.S. 290 and Giles Road. WMI owns the 290-acre Austin Community Landfill, which surrounds a former 10-acre industrial waste site where thousands of barrels of toxic chemicals were illegally dumped by a previous owner in the 1970s.

“When your toilet’s broken, you stop using it,” said Wilfred Williams, who has lived in the nearby Harris Branch subdivision since 1995. “We’ve got a broken toilet here.” Williams said he is so embarrassed by the egregious odor, he no longer invites people over to his home.

Trek English, president of the NorthEast Action Group, which represents several of the neighborhood groups in the area, told the Board about a variety of problems stemming from the landfills. For investigative purposes, the chemical waste in the old toxic dumpsite was stirred up recently, she said, causing new gasses to be released. Not only that, but solid waste has been illegally placed on top of the old industrial waste site, she noted.

Moreover, the water table under the landfill is extremely high, English said, which has caused problems for 20 years with leachate, collected rainwater that has been contaminated by the waste. This contaminated water flows underground from the site and eventually ends up in Walnut Creek, as does runoff water from the dump when it rains, she said.

“We basically cannot live in the Northeast quadrant of Austin,” English said, because of the air pollution and odor problem. The rank odor, which began about a year ago but recently has gotten much worse, can frequently be smelled at a distance of three to four miles from the landfill, and at times, even as far as seven miles away, she said. “We can’t walk around our own neighborhood without gagging . . . I don’t think that’s normal.”

The City needs to halt the contract with WMI until the air quality has been studied, she said. “The gasses emanated give you such a headache, I’m sure there must be impairment of brain function.” She told the Board that the presence of chemicals in the air is so strong it has set off smoke alarms in people’s homes.

Kirby Watson, another Harris Branch resident, said the odor comes into his home at night, sometimes waking him up. He said the stench is seeping into his carpet, walls and furniture. It’s a smell of rotting garbage along with a “burning chemical” odor, he said, and it’s gotten worse over the last six months. “This odor is ruining my life, as it is others’,” he told the Board.

English said someone from the Travis County Health Department has come to her house, but as of yet, the department has elected not to get involved.

Chuck Lesniak, an environmental coordinator with the Watershed Protection Development and Review Department, told the Board he has been working with WMI since last August, hashing out an agreement to deal with some of the problems. “This is not going to be just a handshake agreement,” he said, but a binding contract to be signed in mid-March between the City of Austin and WMI.

The goal of his department was to find toxic leachate before it came to the surface and made its way into the tributaries of Walnut Creek, Lesniak said, noting that those tributaries take runoff from the entire landfill, not just the toxic waste site. This can confuse the monitoring process so WMI has agreed to put monitoring wells closer to the old chemical waste site. WMI also agreed to increase the frequency and duration of sampling in the area, Lesniak said.

“What we think is, the ground water out there is moving very slowly,” he said. But if they find contaminates migrating out of the area, the city will review the entire monitoring plan, he added.

The Board voted 7-0, with Board Members Connie Seibert and Susana Almanza absent. Alvarez made the motion by first calling for the Board to agree with a resolution made by the Solid Waste Advisory Commission on January 9, 2002. That resolution recommended that “Council direct the City Manager to identify any applicable City codes that may address the odor problems being experienced in the area surrounding the Longhorn and Community Landfills and implement appropriate enforcement actions and to identify other governmental agencies with jurisdiction with which the city can partner to initiate enforcement actions or other remedial efforts.”

Alvarez suggested that the City and or County Health Department begin an investigation immediately. Because the situation appears to be so widespread, he said it was critical to have better documentation of the problems. He then suggested other Board members offer friendly amendments to his motion to make it stronger and more specific.

Board Member Matt Watson suggested contacting the State Health Department as well. He said it would also be helpful to ensure participation of neighborhood groups in the process and to insist that the two city departments involved, Solid Waste and Watershed Protection coordinate their efforts.

Jones and Board Member Phil Moncada included provisions to halt renewal of city contracts with the landfills if sufficient monitoring and other environmental measures are not taken. Jones suggested the city review the situation to ensure the landfills are in compliance with all regulations. He also said the Environmental Protection Agency should asses the situation to make sure the sites are in compliance with the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

Alvarez said the Council should request that TNRCC evaluate cumulative effects of the landfill problems to determine if current permit limits are adequate. The Board also agreed to attach a list of concerns from the neighborhood groups as an appendix to the motion. Such items include more specific details for site monitoring and operations, and other health safety concerns for the area.

County's own services already in the red

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Travis County may choose to rescue its own programs from budget deficits before it can contribute to funding other local non-profit agencies.

However, County commissioners at last week’s court session were not in agreement that the situation will turn out as dire as has been predicted. The Community Action Network (CAN) came to court two weeks ago with a request for $1.5 million in additional emergency services caused by Austin’s recent economic downturn. The City Council had already agreed to spend up to $600,000 toward that need, but only to match any contribution the county might make.

The county’s bottom line, it appears, is that it’s hard to consider underwriting CAN requests when the county’s own Health and Human Services Department could run up to $533,000 in the red this year. Both the internal services of the county and external agencies serve many of the same needs. Now commissioners are split on just who might need to be rescued first.

The $533,000 total quoted by Executive Director Stephen Williams at a briefing on Tuesday morning would also deplete the funding “safety net” set aside for social services this year. Shortfalls include $105,000 for the county’s housing assistance programs; $240,000 in the Federally Qualified Health Clinics’ budget; a mid-range deficit of $70,000 for the Rural Medical Assistance Program; and a $290,000 shortfall in emergency assistance for basic need services such as rental and utility assistance.

The total losses could be as high as $705,000, according to early estimates. The figure of $533,000 is what remains after $172,000 in savings is subtracted from the total—considerably more than the $350,000 shortfall the department suggested to the court two weeks ago.

But, as Williams said, the half-million-dollar shortfall is only an estimate. And as the conversation between Williams and commissioners continued on Tuesday morning—with talk of earmarks and revenue, grants and repayments—that number appeared to be a shifting target. The Health and Human Services Department would prefer another two months of data before they come up with a firm estimate. According to staff calculations, September appears to be the month when budget shortfalls would interfere with many of the county’s health and human services functions.

Faced with so many numbers—and so much bad news about county funding—commissioners agreed they could come to no decision on funding CAN’s request, despite Fred Butler’s plea that even a portion of the total would “get the ball rolling” on the matching contributions from the city. Money in hand, Butler told commissioners, means families can be served. Butler went on to say that CAN would get neither county nor city dollars until the county makes its decision.

But commissioners were not entirely convinced. Commissioner Margaret Moore said she wanted it clear she would not let the city push the county into committing money before budgets are reviewed. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner added that the city had the ability to call for a tax anticipation note to pay for its contribution to emergency needs, whereas the county’s tax dollars are far more limited.

Commissioners split along two lines of thinking: County Judge Sam Biscoe and Commissioner Ron Davis agreed that no matter how bad the news about budget shortfalls might be, the county has to pick up the tab on the emergency needs. Biscoe said the county—no matter how tough the budget cycle has been—“finds the money when we want to find the money.” In other words, the county would find the funds for critical needs, both internal and external, if the priority were high enough.

Biscoe made a motion, seconded by Davis, to take $300,000 out of the county’s Housing Finance Corp. and find an additional $200,000 in the county budget to pay for CAN’s emergency needs. Before a vote could be taken, however, a substitute motion was made and supported by Commissioners Sonleitner, Moore and Margaret Gomez to take another two weeks to look at funding options within the budget. Biscoe and Sonleitner will spearhead that study.

“I’m fully sympathetic to the problem, but we’ve got to look at our bigger picture,” Moore said, mentioning that the grim picture of health and human services was about to be followed by a presentation on shortfalls in the jail system. “I’m not ready to move on this today.”

Sonleitner added that she, too, needed more time to review how budget options could interface with internal shortfalls. She added that the court also needed to be clear who would get the extra funding. The additional dollars are likely to be amendments to specific existing contracts the county already holds with social service providers, Sonleitner said. Many social service providers that have met with county officials, however, are under the impression they all will be getting a piece of the funding pie, Sonleitner said.

Gomez urged the court not to forget her “one-stop shopping” concern over social services. Gomez wants to make sure services for low-income families are streamlined and not piecemeal in nature.

The item of just how, or if, the county will underwrite the additional needs will be back on the agenda on March 26.

Tuesday

, Wednesday,

Friday.

Note: At last Thursday's Council meeting, a number of items were "approved" by a split City Council. All the items were approved as directions to staff to prepare ballot language, not approval of an ordinance, according to City Clerk Shirley Brown. Assistant City Attorney John Steiner is taking a well-deserved vacation and could not be reached for further clarification. However, Paul Saldaña, executive assistant to Mayor Gus Garcia, sent a memo to other Council Members late Friday noting that several provisions had passed on a 4-3 vote. Two voting sessions are already scheduled, but if no member changes his or her vote, three readings would be required to approve those narrowly approved items. “We may also have to consider at some point, a Special Called Council Meeting if necessary,” Saldaña wrote. (See In Fact Daily, Friday, March 8 ) . . Signature gathering in high gear . . . Council Members Daryl Slusher and Jackie Goodman are in the home stretch of their drive to bring in 18,263 signatures before March 20. They are hoping to get them in a few days early. Meanwhile, Bruce Todd’s PAC is also working hard to help the incumbents. Council Member Beverly Griffith has work to do, but not signature-gathering. Slusher and Griffith were both at Congressman Lloyd Doggett’ s fundraiser Saturday night, and Doggett pointed out the petitions for Goodman and Slusher at the front door. The star of Doggett’s party, however, was the new Democratic Whip Nancy Pelosi of California. She is the highest-ranking woman in the history of the US House and the crowd at Eddie Saffady’s Congress Avenue home made gave her a warm welcome. Doggett said Pelosi has hired Texan Cecile Richards to assist in her duties . . . Counting election returns . . . If you go to the usual place, the Palmer Auditorium, you’ll be all alone. Returns will be counted at the Crockett Center, 6301 Highway 290 East. That’s at the intersection of I-35 and Highway 290. That’s also the spot for a party hosted by the Travis County Republican Party . You can expect to see Democrat Pct. 2 Commissioner Karen Sonleitner at the Crockett Center, and possibly the rest of the court. Sonleitner’s opponent Jeff Heckler will be at La Plaza Mexican Restaurant (with access to cable television) in the southeast quadrant of the 290/I-35 intersection . . .. . . County Commissioner Candidate for Pct. 3 Ira Yates will be hosting a tailgate party from the back of his truck at the Crockett Center. His opponent in the Republican Primary, Gerald Daugherty, is hosting a party at JC’s on the west side of the I-35 access road. . . . Metro Secrets . . . We’re not sure why the Capital Metro staff has been so secretive about public relations/marketing contract proposals submitted on January 31, but they have refused to release the names of the competitors. However, the grapevine says the four competitors are SWG&M Advertising, Inc. (Sanders Wingo, Gadis & Morton), Sherry Matthews Advocacy Marketing, Fellers Marketing & Advertising and Christian-Hubble Media & Communications. It is possible that only two of the contenders are still in the race, but staff is still mulling between the final duo. The Capital Metro board of directors is expected to award the contract at its late March board meeting . . . BSEACD talking to prospects for General Manager position . . . The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District board will meet in executive session Tuesday to interview candidates for the position of General Manager. They are hoping to make a decision on the matter at a March 21 meeting. In Fact Daily will return with a new issue next Monday, March 18. We will be on vacation until then

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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