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City agreement on BFI landfill riles opponents

Tuesday, November 4, 2008 by Mark Richardson

The City of Austin has filed a document with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality removing its long-standing opposition to the expansion of Sunset Farms Landfill on Giles Road sought by BFI Waste Systems. The motion, filed late Friday by the city’s legal staff with TCEQ and the State Office of Administrative Hearings, contains an agreement between BFI and the city for the expansion of the landfill and extending its closing date to November 2015.

 

The agreement signals an apparent reversal of previous city policy opposing the expansion, and has shocked and angered landowners and environmentalists who oppose raising the height of the landfill to 795 feet. They plan to fight to get the city to reverse its position before a state hearing on the matter.

 

BFI, which operates the landfill under a contract with Travis County, is seeking a permit from TCEQ for the expansion with plans to close the facility in November 2015. If the expansion is not granted, BFI will likely run out of space at the landfill by 2011.

 

The Austin City Council approved a resolution on May 17, 2007 opposing the expansion of the landfill, and the Council has made no public announcement of any change to that policy. Travis County voted in November 2007 not to file for a contested case hearing. At the same time, commissioners also voted to not enter into an agreement with BFI on the landfill.

 

Robin Schneider, director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, said the city was part of a coalition that was fighting the expansion, and now they feel abandoned.

 

“We have been fighting this for a long time, and we had some concerns recently about what the city was planning to do,” she said. “I was told by Assistant City Manager Robert Goode that city staff was instructed to file the motion during a recent executive session of the Council. But I have talked with several Council staffers and they haven’t heard anything about it.” One source suggested that the previous Council, not the current one, had heard about the agreement.

 

Questions regarding the matter to city staff were referred to City Attorney David Smith.  Calls to both Smith and City Manager Marc Ott were not immediately returned Monday night.

 

The agreement, filed by Assistant City Attorney Holly Noelke, essentially ends any disputes between the city and BFI over the operation of the landfill. That does not sit will with Council Member Laura Morrison.

 

“I am seriously concerned that the City of Austin would file a settlement statement that would violate a commitment to the citizens,” she said. “It was filed on Friday and neither I nor anyone in my office was aware of it, or even that this was in the works.”

 

Morrison said she had been contacted by a number of citizens who were very concerned about the situation.

 

“I put in a call to the city attorney this morning, and I’m looking forward to hearing from him,” she said. “It is of huge import to the folks in northeast Austin who have been working on it for quite a while. It was a huge surprise to them that Austin would be filing something that was not what the city’s position was. We need to make sure the legal steps are in line with the Council’s position that we committed to the community.”

 

In 2007, city officials briefly studied the Webberville area east of Austin in Travis County as a possible location for a new landfill site, but have taken no action on such a move.

 

Following the passage of the 2007 resolution, Council Members Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez and then-member Jennifer Kim sent a letter to Travis County Commissioners notifying them of the Council’s actions and encouraging the Court to follow suit.

 

Commissioners debated the matter in October 2007. A divided Court voted to reject a proposed agreement with the waste hauler to set a landfill closure date while taking no position on BFI’s request to the TCEQ to expand the landfill. However, while the county did not request a hearing, 51 individuals or groups did, including State Sen. Kirk Watson, State Rep. Mark Strama, a group of homeowners near the site, and several environmental organizations.

 

Schneider said she and others in the coalition opposing the landfill plan to fight to have the city rescind its agreement by Wednesday.

 

“If they allow BFI to increase the height of the landfill to 795 feet, it will be taller than Mount Bonnell,” she said. “We want it to be undone.”

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