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Monday, December 16, 2002 by

“Common sense tells us that this landfill is polluting the water; common sense tells us this landfill is polluting the air. There are landfills that operate without adverse effects . . . this one does not,” said Lee Leffingwell, chair of the Environmental Board, after a recent public hearing on the ongoing problems with the Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) landfill in Northeast Travis County.

After more than an hour of discussion and testimony, the board voted to recommend the city “exploit any avenue and oppose in any way possible the expansion of the landfill” until recurring problems are addressed. Board Secretary Karin Bongiorni made a motion to urge that the city take action to solve the ongoing problems that create “noxious odors, air and water pollution.”

Saying the motion was too nebulous, Vice-chair Tim Jones wanted to take it further. “I think the mandate of this board is to suggest options,” he said, declaring that the city should send a delegation to the state legislature.

“Where’s the common sense?” he asked, in enlarging a landfill within the boundaries of an expanding urban area, by bringing in trash from two to three counties away. “It’s a little bit ludicrous,” he said.

“It doesn’t make any sense that trash is coming from rural counties to Austin,” Bongiorni said.

“That landfill should not be there,” Leffingwell added.

He said the city has not responded to previous Environmental Board recommendations and requests to take action on this matter, even though a scientist has testified that the gases coming from the landfill do not just smell bad, but cause health problems as well. Moreover, Leffingwell said, there is evidence of water pollution, so the surface and ground water in the area should be monitored every six months—though he has yet to see a report.

On a recent visit to the site, he saw that BFI, operator of the landfill, was spraying the air with a deodorant, which, he noted, didn’t smell much better than the landfill itself. Since the city has authority to mandate watershed protection in the area, the city should take action, he said.

Board Member Phil Moncada said he drove by the site last Wednesday, and “the odor permeated my truck.” He also noted that mud from the landfill had been tracked across the surfaces of US Highway 290 and Giles Road, a clear infraction of regulations.

“Why is it that no one has regulated the incremental expansion of that landfill since 1986?” he asked. “The city does have water quality regulations so why has the city not notified the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of these infractions? Why has the city not taken action?” he asked.

He said he would like to see more temporary erosion controls set up and a regular truck-washing program established, since the mud gets washed into Walnut Creek.

Pat Murphy, city environmental officer, said the city has a history of asking BFI to clean the mud up, but they only do it in response to a specific request. He said the city has limited authority to regulate landfills. “The state regulates landfills, we don’t,” he said.

“Landfills are considered to be development” under city rules, so they are only subject to the city’s development regulations, he said.

The issue came under question because BFI had recently won approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to increase the height of the landfill by ten feet. That permit, granted last month, is being reconsidered.

“The ten-foot expansion is nothing,” said Trek English, an activist who has fought the landfill for years. She said the ten-foot height increase was just the first part of a plan to increase the height of the landfill by 65 feet.

She said she and her colleagues filed an appeal to TCEQ’s decision to grant the permit. A permit allowing the landfill to grow by 65 feet will give the dump another 12 to 15 years of life, English said, which means thousands of tons of more garbage will be trucked into Austin from a 22-county area.

Commission cites lack of effort to work with city

The Planning Commission expressed dismay at the lack of progress and lack of effort put forth by Columbia St. David’s Healthcare to work with city staff to save some ancient oak trees, so commissioners voted to deny the hospital’s requested zoning change.

The Commission voted 5-3 Wednesday night to recommend denial of a zoning change that would allow the hospital to proceed with the current plan for a 72,000 square-foot expansion. (See In Fact Daily, November 25, 2002 .)

Commissioner Niyanta Spelman said she wanted to see some concern and willingness on the part of the applicant to negotiate, since “we do have an ordinance on the books for tree preservation.” But, she said, there had been no change in the building plan, and, as far as she could see, there had not even been a real attempt at finding a way to alter the proposed design.

“The whole presumption,” she said, of not being genuinely concerned with tree preservation or attempting to change the footprint of the proposal bothered her. “What I’m hearing is a lack even of discussion.”

She said at the last meeting the applicant said they would come back with some sort of mitigation proposal, so she asked City Arborist Jim Rhoades what had changed in the ensuing three weeks. He said, “There was a grove of old trees we were trying to preserve,” but “the applicant didn’t feel they could move one inch” on the site plan to accommodate saving the trees.

“Minimal headway was achieved along those lines,” he said. “It’s been a difficult case, there’s been very little give and take.”

“Although we would prefer to save some of the trees . . . it was decided that the department could move some of the trees that we were wanting to preserve,” he said. “We gave up the ghost on all those trees that were in the conditional overlay.”

Attorney Veronica Rivera, with Minter Joseph & Thornhill, representing Columbia St. David’s Healthcare, said her client proposes moving some of the trees. “We’re looking at relocating three or four, the fourth one being closest to the building.” She added that St. David's proposed to mitigate the damage by adding 46 trees.

She said maintaining the configuration in the current proposal is critical due to the highly specific needs of emergency and surgical services—the primary reason for which the expansion was proposed. “We will work with staff to make this a better project,” she added.

Noting a precedent, Rivera said the city had relocated some old trees for construction of the Convention Center parking garage. She also said St. David’s has a history of saving trees.

Spelman said that the difference between the current expansion plans—and accompanying lack of concern for keeping the trees as an asset to the area—and the expansion of St. David’s in the 1980s, is that now the hospital is part of a national corporation rather than a locally-owned business.

Despite that claim, “The administration in place has done a tremendous job in preserving trees,” Rivera said. Moreover, she added, “the ordinance does allow for mitigation.”

Spelman said hospitals in big cities typically expand vertically, since more land area is generally not available in urban centers such as New York, Houston or Dallas. They have no choice but to go up, she said, so she couldn’t accept the argument that St. David’s had to expand horizontally.

“I’m not convinced,” she said. “Frankly, I was reluctant to vote for the postponement” during the last meeting, but she thought other possibilities might come forward, she said. She wanted “to see if Columbia St. David’s would work with staff,” even though they really had not done so in a significant way over the previous nine months.

She made a motion for a recommendation to deny the request. “Any zoning change has to have merit,” she said, and this one did not.

Commissioner Cynthia Medlin said she was also not convinced that another floor plan could not work. “My main concern is that I’m not hearing the options . . . it doesn’t appear you’re able to speak to some of the issues we were concerned about,” she said. “It appears to me to be cloaked in secrecy.”

Commissioner Chris Riley also said he couldn’t support the zoning change because “we’ve heard, fairly unequivocally from staff,” that the applicant has not put forth the effort to seek another solution. “I’m worried about what kind of message that sends,” he said. “This is a special use for this site, and I would be willing to accept a lower standard, but I just haven’t heard enough of what the applicant was willing to do.”

The vote was 5-3 with Commissioners Maggie Armstrong, Michael Casias and Matthew Moore dissenting.

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

Finally good news . . . Austin Energy General Manager Juan Garza has reported that electric revenues for the first two months of the fiscal year are 8.8 percent higher than anticipated. That is about $6.9 million more than anticipated for October and November. Other revenues are $2 million higher than expected and operating expenses are $5 million under budget. The expense reductions are “due primarily to reduced personnel and contractual costs,” Garza says. Even though this is “a good start,” the energy chief cautions that “electric revenues have remained flat for two years in a row” . . . More than they really need . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission gained two new members last week. Council Member Raul Alvarez appointed John-Michael Cortez to replace Diana Castañeda and Council Member Daryl Slusher named Clarke Hammond to replace Angular Adams. Adams resigned because she was buying a home outside the city. Veronica Briseño, executive assistant to Alvarez, said Casteñada indicated her intention to quit the commission two months ago because of continuing health problems. She said her boss wanted to do the appointment before the City Council took its long holiday break. However, Castañeda has not yet tendered her resignation, so there is a question about how many commissioners will attempt to take seats Tuesday night. Cortez is a lifelong Austin resident and member of the board of directors of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, according to Briseño . . . The pace slows . . . The Historic Landmark Commission is scheduled to meet this evening, but has a light agenda . . . Capital Metro directors to meet . . . The Board of Directors of the Capital Metropolitan Transit Authority are scheduled to meet at 4pm today. Their agenda has no particularly controversial issues, but the board may hear complaints from members of the Cesar Chavez neighborhood about the agency’s plans to publish a request for proposals on development of the transit corridor. Members of the Cesar Chavez and Holly neighborhoods have been meeting with Capital Metro officials for several months. Mayor Gus Garcia told those attending one recent meeting that he expects the city to be an equal partner with Capital Metro in the project.

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

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