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Travis County sludge farm battle continues

Thursday, September 18, 2003 by

Commissioners ask TCEQ commissioners to reverse permit decision

Travis County officials continue to fight a Cap-Tex Inc. sludge farm in Southeast Travis County, almost three years after the county filed its first objection to the beneficial use permit.

The Cap-Tex permit application was a catalyst for the county’s solid waste siting ordinance. At the time the initial permit application was filed, commissioners were alarmed the permit required no notification of nearby property owners. That led to a discussion resulting in the comprehensive siting ordinance.

“I guess you can say this is one of the foundation bricks in the long and winding road of solid waste regulation that we have been going down for the last three years,” Environmental Officer John Kuhl told commissioners on Tuesday. “As far back as the summer of 2000, this application alerted us to some of the deficiencies in terms of policy for solid waste issues.”

Now, months after county commissioners passed an ordinance to regulate sludge operations, they must fight Cap-Tex again. The executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has approved the permit, and county officials have filed a letter to overturn the decision and send their conclusion to be appraised by the full TCEQ board.

Compliance history is the biggest issue to county officials. According to a letter filed in 2000, Cap-Tex defied the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC)—renamed TCEQ—by spreading sludge on a site in Burnet County. What made the act so “egregious,” as county officials termed it in the letter, was that the incident occurred in front of an inspector. According to documents filed by the inspector, a Cap-Tex worker was told to stop spreading sludge. The worker called the owner, and the owner told him to go ahead.

“If this is the level of applicant’s compliance when TNRCC personnel are present and have advised him that certain conduct is improper, what can TNRCC, Travis County and neighboring landowners expect the applicant’s level of compliance to be at all other times?” commissioners asked in a letter dated August of 2000.

The letter went on to say that it was doubtful, given such conduct, that Cap-Tex intended a beneficial use for the sludge. Cap-Tex’s application says the sludge is intended to support cutting hay. The clear purpose, according to the county, is simply to dump sludge. That was an opinion shared by resident Gary Johnson of the Blacklands Prairie Conservation Association, who lives adjacent to the proposed sludge farm.

“Everything we get from the TCEQ says ‘it won’t be a problem if it’s done correct,’ “ Johnson told the court. “This organization doesn’t have a record of doing things proper.”

Attorney John Riley, who also managed to get recent fines reduced for Waste Management and Browning-Ferris Industries, now represents Cap-Tex. Riley said much had been made of Cap-Tex’s compliance history, but the last major infraction was in 1997. Anything subsequent to that infraction has been minor, Riley said.

Riley added that the case filed by the Travis County District Attorney was against Cary Juby and not against Cap-Tex. Riley called the county’s willingness to settle for deferred adjudication and a $100,000 fine to be a sign that the county had not called for an indictment. The county alleged that Juby knew that the registration permit for a subcontractor, Organic Resources, had expired.

Commissioners Margaret Gomez and Ron Davis were the most vocal about opposing the application. Gomez said she was fed up with waste facilities east of Interstate 35.

“I really, really get a strong feeling that east of 35 is considered the backyard of our community,” Gomez told her colleagues. “And if they’re not going to get their permit, I don’t want them going south of the river to Precinct 4. I really don’t want them east of 35.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Davis echoed Gomez’s comments, saying he was discouraged and disappointed that East Austin had to be “the dumping capital of the world . . . It’s not fair to the people who live there,” Davis told his colleagues.

Riley seized on those comments and argued that Cap-Tex should not bear the entire burden of the county’s desire to control waste facilities. But Commissioner Karen Sonleitner was quick to jump in and say the county had a long record of opposing this facility and its operator. No less than four letters have been written to the TCEQ.

County commissioners filed four separate objections to the Cap-Tex permit, each outlined by Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols. Among the objections raised to the county permit:

• The Executive Director failed to respond to written comment, and specifically comments filed by Travis County last year, as required under administrative code.

• The Executive Director failed to respond to factual issues in the application that Travis County had disputed. This, too, is required under administrative code.

• The TCEQ has some discretion to consider land use. While the county conceded tha the waste-siting ordinance came after the Cap-Tex application, the county urged TCEQ to consider a degree of discretion in considering the application.

• Consider the compliance history of Cap-Tex. The county is uncertain whether the agency’s new compliance history guidelines could be applied to the Cap-Tex permit.

Capital Metro considering $6.5 million in road improvements

Yesterday, the Capital Metro board reviewed $6.5 million in proposed road projects under the 11th year of the Build Greater Austin program (BGA).

The projects are scheduled for approval at next Monday’s board meeting. This year’s total commitment has dipped as Capital Metro’s sales tax funds have fallen off. In 1994, during BGA’s initial year, the agency dedicated $9.9 million to street and mobility projects. Last year, only $3.5 million was available in the Capital Metro service area.

Board members, especially those representing smaller cities and rural areas, praised Build Greater Austin. The programs fall into seven basic program areas: annual transit street maintenance, emergency street repairs, transit corridor improvements, pedestrian/bicycle safety and access, transit activity centers, transit capital improvements and projects in suburban communities.

Rehabilitation and reconstruction of streets, at a cost of $2.5 million.

• Emergency street repairs along Capital Metro routes, at a cost of $187,500.

• Intersection improvements within the City of Austin that will include transportation system management projects and signalization of intersections, at a cost of $472,289.

• Pedestrian safety improvements in the City of Austin, at a cost of $950,000, plus bus stop accessibility projects, at a cost of $285,000.

• Neighborhood transit centers on Robert T Martinez Road and Manchaca Lane, as well as the adopt-a-stop project, at a cost of $475,000.

• Park-and-Ride projects, including the construction of a Downtown Transit Center, at a cost of $475,000.

• When contingency funding is added to the projects, the total is $6.5 million. Of that total, $885,123 will go to the suburban communities outside Austin. The total for each jurisdiction depends on population, from $41,026 for Jonestown to $414,595 for Travis County. Cedar Park and Pflugerville are excluded from the program.

What also makes the project unique, John Hodges of the Real Estate Division pointed out to the board, is that Capital Metro coordinates the construction of the projects with the cities and counties. By using Capital Metro contractors, smaller cities are able to maximize the benefits from the project. Capital Metro also inspects the projects before paying contractors.

Lowe's opponents criticize sale and storage of pollutants

Pollutants can leach into runoff, poisoning water, they say

Opponents of two Lowe’s Supercenters planned over the Edwards Aquifer gathered at Barton Springs Pool yesterday to voice concerns about pollutants that the company may inadvertently allow to enter storm sewers and drainage facilities. Joining veteran big box warrior Mike Blizzard in denouncing Lowe’s plans were elected officials from Bee Caves and Sunset Valley, as well as representatives of the following environmental organizations: Save Our Springs Alliance, Save Barton Creek Association, Sierra Club and Clean Water Action. Several speakers emphasized the dangers of arsenic pressure-treated wood, which Lowe’s and Home Depot have promised to stop selling by the end of the year, according to David Foster of Clean Water Action.

In spite of their willingness to cease such sales in the future, Foster said the current Lowe’s stores keep lumber outside without protection from rain. That means, he said, that arsenic leaches out of the wood and into the runoff. Melanie Oberlin, at attorney with SOSA, complained that a new Lowe’s store “could add as much as nine million gallons of polluted runoff to local streams each year.”

In response to the press conference, consultant Bruce Todd released a statement saying that the new site “will be developed in accordance with the spirit of the SOS Ordinance for both water quality treatment and with 15 percent impervious cover through the purchase of additional land in the Barton Springs recharge zone.” He also offered a side-by-side comparison of impervious cover, water quality standards and other factors under the agreement Lowe’s has proposed to the City of Austin as compared to regulation by Travis County (essentially, no regulation) or Sunset Valley. Lowe’s has promised neither to use nor sell coal-tar based pavement sealers, such as those recently found to have caused high concentrations of carcinogenic PAH’s in a hill above Barton Springs. This battle is scheduled to come before the Austin City Council next week.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Keep Austin Beautiful losing executive director . . . The board of the non-profit organization Keep Austin Beautiful (KAB) has asked Executive Director Irene Guzman-Krill to resign. Board President Ester Matthews confirmed that the board had taken the action this week “due to management issues that we’ve experienced for the past two-and-a-half years that she’s been our Executive Director.” Matthews added that seeking the executive director’s resignation was “a unanimous decision of the executive committee.” The board cannot take Guzman-Krill out of her position by itself, however, since she is a city employee. Acting Assistant City Manager John Stephens said the board’s “no confidence vote” relates to some of the issues that city management wants to review before making a decision about her future employment. In the meantime, Stephens said, Guzman-Krill is on administrative leave. He said this is not a typical city employee situation, since the executive director reports both to the board and to the Solid Waste Services Department. He said the city has only one other employee remaining at Keep Austin Beautiful, and that person has asked for reassignment. The county also has one KAB employee . . . New guy on the block . . . Capital Metro has named Rick L’Amie Vice President for Communications. He will take over Cap Metro’s public relations, marketing and government relations . . . Stark statistics . . . Of all the statistics in this month’s Community Action Network report one stands out as an indicator of unmet needs. The report says, “ Austin Children’s Shelter recently had to turn away 18 babies who needed emergency shelter in one week due to a lack of space and resources. Those babies had to go outside (Austin and Travis County) to receive emergency shelter services, or risk staying in an unsafe home . . . Good PR news . . . General awareness of Capital Metro remains high, according to the results of a market survey released at yesterday’s work session. According to phone survey results, 88 percent can name Capital Metro as the area’s transit agency. Other results noted that 57 percent were “very comfortable” riding Capital Metro, and 78 percent of those who ride Capital Metro said they were “very satisfied” with service. The biggest opportunity remains in bringing non-riders on board. Approximately 65 percent of those surveyed do not utilize Austin’s bus service . . . Kiosks considered . . . Capital Metro’s board of directors will consider the approval of a contract to provide 25 information kiosks at prominent locations along Capital Metro routes. At a kiosk, customers would be able to use bus trip planning services, with a printed schedule in plain sight. Other services include access to city events, as well as modified access for those with disabilities . . . Working weekends. . . The Zoning and Platting Commission task force working with representatives of Wal-Mart and neighborhoods surrounding the proposed new supercenter on South MoPac met last night to begin trying to reach a compromise. Richard Suttle, Wal-Mart’s attorney, said the group will reconvene at 6pm Friday at One Texas Center to continue negotiations . . . Welcome to the family . . . In Fact Daily’s web designer Rob D’Amico and his wife Rebecca are the proud parents of a new baby girl. Autumn arrived at 4:15am yesterday. D’Amico reports, “All are doing well and we were home by 9 a.m.!” . . . Did you miss a day? . . . If you did not get to read the news from Tuesday or Wednesday, you can gain easy access by clicking on the buttons at the top of the page.

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