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Hutto alarmed over landfill permit potential

Wednesday, May 31, 2006 by

Williamson County, WMI could expand ‘Mt. Hutto’ in perpetuity

A long-simmering battle between the citizens of Hutto and Williamson County over a controversial landfill has heated up recently over charges that the county is proposing to sign a no-bid, long-term contract with the current operator.

A group of Hutto-area citizens has also complained that a permit filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) would increase of the landfill to 500 acres and allow it to be built up to a height of some 700 feet. There is additional concern that the landfill’s current operator, Waste Management Inc. (WMI), would co-own the operating permit, giving it the ability to operate the landfill in perpetuity.

Hutto, formerly a sleepy farming town in East Williamson County, has benefited—depending on your point of view—from Austin’s urban sprawl, with hundreds of new homes for commuters popping up in developments along Texas 79 and FM 685. The town’s population was 1,250 in 2000, but may have grown to as many as11,000.

Many of those new residents in Hutto have expressed shock at finding out that their new home was built within a few miles of a county (and some say regional) landfill that could expand by some 500 percent in capacity if the TCEQ grants the county’s permit request. Old timers and others have taken to calling the landfill "Mt. Hutto," for its potential to become the highest point for miles around.

At issue, according to the group Mt. Hutto Aware Citizens, is the TECQ permit filed by Williamson County, which owns the land used for the landfill. They are concerned that WMI, the landfill operator, would be the co-owner of the permit because it is actually pursuing the permit application, and its name is on TCEQ documents as a co-applicant.

The group’s leader, Orlynn Evans, says he is concerned that the county may have given away ownership and control of the permit application, which will be worth millions of dollars to WMI if approved. Those millions of dollars, Evans says, should belong to Williamson County taxpayers.

That could also mean that the county would not be able to control what comes into the landfill, making it open to other counties’ waste. And that, Evans said, could mean that "Mt. Hutto" will grow higher and wider more quickly.

The TCEQ staff has approved the permit application on its technical merit, but still has several hurdles, including public and stakeholder comment, before it is completed.

State Rep. Mike Krusee of Round Rock has requested a public hearing on the permit. If that hearing occurs, the application process at TCEQ will not be completed before January 1, 2007 at the earliest.

TCEQ staff has already conducted two meetings on the issue, but those sessions were limited to technical matters on the permit.

Evans and the others say they want to determine if the county has been negligent in handling a major public asset, whether WMI’s method of operating the landfill is in the public interest, and whether plans for the landfill’s future operation will adversely affect the city of Hutto and the thousands of residents who will occupy subdivisions around the facility.

Evans said the landfill is causing problems in Hutto as vehicles leave trash and solid waste left along the road to the landfill. In addition, he said methane gas is escaping from the landfill and there is a growing blight on the landscape. He also complained that the operator is covering solid waste with tarps rather than dirt at the end of each day and that water running through the property is being contaminated.

Current Williamson County Commissioners have been silent on dealing with the issues raised by Hutto citizens regarding the landfill, allowing Precinct 4 Commissioner Frankie Limmer to handle negotiations with WMI over the permit.

However, unless the permit process is completed before January 1, an almost brand-new commissioner’s court will take over the landfill project. Four of the five members of the court, including Limmer, will depart, leaving Precinct 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman as the only one remaining from the current court.

Some members of the Mt Hutto Aware Citizens have suggested that the current court pull down the TCEQ permit application and let the new court consider the issues when it convenes next year, but County Judge John Doerfler said that is unlikely.

Examining the Medical Examiner

County fights to improve understaffed office

When it comes to the Medical Examiner’s Office, Travis County Commissioners Court is caught between its current limitations and future expectations.

With a somewhat checkered past – and the resignation of its two top officials – Travis County is hardly staffed to take in the full caseload it now carries. But county officials also are determined ultimately to expand staff and meet national accreditation standards.

That means that County Commissioners were on dual courses on Tuesday – proposing to cut back the office’s caseload temporarily while also approving almost $380,000 for upgrades to the three-story medical examiner’s facility. County Judge Sam Biscoe acknowledged that the temporary cutbacks could lead to outlying counties looking elsewhere for autopsy services.

Chief Medical Examiner Roberto Bayardo recently announced his retirement. Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Elizabeth Peacock resigned, effective July 1. Two additional positions are, or will be, filled on a temporary basis, at a cost of $500 per autopsy. In the case of a homicide – which may require testimony at trial – that turns into a $1,000 per autopsy until the county can fill three, and eventually four, pathologist positions full time.

Short term, the Medical Examiner’s Office intends to eliminate all private autopsy cases, provide relief coverage on weekends, prioritize all Travis County cases and decline cases from Burnet County. Burnet County officials have expressed dissatisfaction with the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office in recent months.

Next week, County Commissioners will consider four options to cut the autopsy caseload: decline cases from outside the region served by CAPCOG and StarFlight; decline cases from counties that are the furthest from Travis County until appropriate case load is reached; or decline all cases from Williamson County, which would address the case overload in one fell swoop. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, whose precinct touches Williamson County in a number of places, was opposed to such a move.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty also suggested a proportional reduction for each outlying county being served by the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office. That ranges from small numbers – a number of counties required only one or two cases in the entire year – compared to the 65 required by Victoria County, 130 by Williamson County and 86 by Hays County.

Leslie Strickland also presented an update on the renovations to the medical examiner’s office, which will be focused on meeting national accreditation standards and providing four adequate and separate autopsy bays for office pathologists. Upgrades will include additional offices, increased refrigeration area for tissue samples and a more secure lab area.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Spotted at City Hall . . . Tuesday was a quiet day in a quiet week at City Hall but three former Council Members dropped by. Former Mayor Bruce Todd has joined Amelia Lopez-Phelps in seeking a zoning change to allow for a 12-story condominium tower near the Arboretum. Former Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman is helping a local charity which is seeking more funding for a children’s organization. Former Council Member George Humphrey was also spotted . . . Honor sought for lawman. . . Local resident Jim Cooper has asked county officials to name the new Precinct 4 office building on McKinney Falls Parkway after Ramiro "Ray" Martinez. Martinez is known as the first officer to confront University of Texas tower sniper Charles Whitman in 1966. He later went on to serve as a Texas Ranger and is active in civic organizations. As per county policy, county commissioners have opened the call to name the building, with a deadline of July 10. After the Travis County Historical Commission reviews those recommendations, the court could approve a name in either August or September. More information is available on Ramirez at http://www.rangerray.net. . . CBDG hearings . . . Travis County Commissioners have scheduled public hearings on the county’s Community Development Block Grant Funds. The county is eligible for $2.4 million in funding. Hearings are scheduled for the County Commissioners’ Court meetings on July 11 and July 18. Drafts of the plan are available at county community centers . . . Tuscany Way expedited . . . County commissioners approved the use of $250,000 in accrued interest from 1984 bond funds to complete preliminary engineering on Tuscany Way, south of US 290 to Springdale. That road segment, when connected to the portion of Tuscany Way north of US 290, will provide an important arterial for the area. The accrued interest is about half of the county’s available interest funds off the 1984 bonds. It is expected that the city and county would jointly fund the project when construction begins on the roadway . . . Meetings . . . The Single-Family Regulations Task Force meets ay 7:30am in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority Board of Directors meets at 9:30am in room 350 at 301 Congress Ave.

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