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Travis County tries to halt human waste recycling project

Monday, January 31, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Travis County will send a letter to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality protesting a pending human waste recycling project in eastern Travis County. The waste, which would be treated and then sold by the city of Austin to a company called Synagro of Texas, would be used as agricultural fertilizer.


According to the Austin Water Utility, the effort is fairly typical. The Travis court remains skeptical.


Indeed, on Tuesday, the commissioners’ concerns nearly stopped the court from issuing its authorization for county attorneys to write the letter. However, after both Precinct 1 Commissioner Ron Davis and Precinct 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez seemed set to vote against anything that had to do with the project – including the letter that would seek to contain it – Gomez had a change of heart.


“I think I can oppose the project, but I support what is in the letter,” she said. “So I can support sending the letter to them.”


With Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt off the dais, and only four commissioners present, Gomez’s switch allowed the court to proceed with the letter.


In October, the commissioners ruled to deny a set of variances that Synagro would have used to expand the facility’s size from 80 to 485 acres (see In Fact Daily, Oct. 27). At the time, County Judge Sam Biscoe expressed his concerns that the firm “did not provide adequate assurances that they would mitigate all adverse impacts on residents and land adjacent to the site.”


Biscoe further explained to In Fact Daily that the variances the company had requested were to an ordinance that doesn’t allow the operation of such a facility close to residential properties. “That would violate our policy,” he said.


The policy that Biscoe refers to requires that an operation such as Synagro’s be located at least 1500 feet from a residence.


Limited by their lack of authority to deny the effort outright, the court approved Synagro’s project—but for the smaller 80-acre parcel.


Synagro then brought their request to the commission as part of the normal permitting process for that facility. Biscoe said that he wanted to be sure that that body was aware of the court’s October action. The letter aims to do that.


In it, the county’s head of Transportation and Natural Resources, Steve Manilla, will tell the commission that the county is opposed to the project. He will also remind the body — should its members act to grant Synagro the permits it needs to begin its work — of the court’s denial of the variance.


The commission could act to side with the county and deny Synagro the right to operate their facility. It could also act to approve the larger tract over the objections of the court.


Biscoe told his colleagues that not sending the letter would do more harm than good. “If we don’t send this letter, I’m afraid that (the commission) may well go ahead and approve the (larger) area,” he said.


Still, he was unable to sway Davis. “I think the city of Austin can do a better job as far as looking for a site that will not distribute … their human waste … here in eastern Travis County,” he said.


According to Austin Water Utility spokesperson Jill Mayfiled, the Synagro effort would be along the same lines as other facilities that have already been approved by the commission. “This kind of thing is not new,” she told In Fact Daily. “People do this all over the country.”

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