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Dead vultures found near landfill site raise questions, concerns

Friday, February 27, 2009 by Bill McCann

Opponents of two private landfills in northeastern Travis County believe a pile of dead vultures will help bolster their case against proposed expansions at the landfills.


Two weeks ago Evan Williams, who co-owns 23 undeveloped acres between the Colonial Place subdivision and the Waste Management Inc. landfill, found 30 to 40 dead and decaying vultures on his property. Vultures are considered migratory birds and are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But the government does issue permits to kill the birds under certain circumstances.


The smelly vulture carcasses were in several piles within 10 to 15 yards of a trap that was used to catch the birds, according to Williams. He said he gave Austin Energy permission five or six years ago to place the trap because the birds were posing problems to the utility’s electric transmission lines crossing the property.


Williams and other landowners argue that vultures have been a continuing nuisance in the area because the landfills attract them, despite arguments by the landfill operators that they have mitigated the vulture problem. Waste Management operates one landfill and BFI Waste Systems operates another one nearby. Both have expansion plans pending before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and area landowners are fighting those expansions.  Williams and other landfill opponents have scheduled a news conference for today on the vulture issue.


“If these birds are being killed, it is proof that there continues to be a problem,” Williams said. “And the problem is not going to get better with taller landfills.”


Vultures, often called buzzards, are considered an important part of the ecosystem, serving as nature’s sanitation crews by eating animal carcasses. However, the big birds also can pose problems, especially when their numbers grow large, by swooping into residential areas, scaring people and leaving messy droppings behind. When the birds roost on transmission towers or power lines, their acidic excrement can cause electrical shorts and interrupt power to homes and businesses. Outages or voltage fluctuations can affect the manufacturing operations of high-tech companies, costing companies millions of dollars, according to Austin Energy.


Williams said he contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after finding the dead birds and a Fish and Wildlife Service employee visited the site with him last week. During the visit, they found an empty shotgun shell box.


Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, said the agency is investigating.


Austin Energy spokesman Ed Clark said the utility also is investigating. Austin Energy has a contract with a company that has a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service to allow the trapping and disposal of vultures during certain times when the bird populations and power demands are high, Clark said. The utility is trying to contact the individual who provides that service to determine whether he was involved in killing the vultures found on Williams’ property, Clark said. That individual was out of town and unavailable on Thursday.


Vultures have been an ongoing problem for Austin Energy in some locations, Clark said. As a result, the utility has spent $600,000 to $800,000 in the past five years systemwide on measures such as covering electrical insulators to keep bird droppings from affecting the reliability of the electric transmission system. 


“Reliability is extremely important to us,” Clark said. “But anything we do to manage wildlife that poses a nuisance or threat to the system we strive to do in a manner that is the most reasonable and accepted best practice.”

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