About the Author
Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
Enter a search term below to search the Austin Monitor.
Friday, December 11, 2015 by Jo Clifton
Council rejects Austin Energy waste contract
Responding to environmental concerns, City Council on Thursday unanimously rejected staff’s recommendation that the city extend a contract with Republic Services to dispose of nonhazardous industrial waste generated by Austin Energy. Mayor Steve Adler was out of the city at the Harvard school for new mayors.
Council members Ora Houston and Don Zimmerman championed the action against extending the contract. Houston said her District 1 constituents were tired of having the city’s waste dumped in their backyards. Zimmerman peppered staff with questions about why contracts always seem to need to be renewed the day after the Council meeting that includes that particular contract on the agenda.
Republic Services has been operating under a contract to dispose of Austin Energy’s nonhazardous industrial waste, including contaminated soil, asbestos and creosote-coated wooden utility poles, since 2013.
On Tuesday, Houston and Zimmerman both expressed concerns about the contract. At that time, Houston told the Austin Monitor that East Austin residents have been trying to close the Republic landfill and the Waste Management landfill for at least 20 years now. Although the Republic landfill was closed on Nov. 1, the company intended to use the much larger Waste Management landfill to dispose of Austin Energy’s waste.
Houston said, “The Waste Management landfill is still operating, and that’s the one that has barrels and barrels of hazardous waste that you can see that is buried under a mountain of litter. Sometimes the smell is so strong,” she said, “that you can smell it in North Acres, which is close to I-35,” several miles away from the landfill at Giles Road and U.S. Highway 290 East. Republic had offered to take the waste to its San Antonio facility, but the prospect of hauling the waste so much farther away had prompted concerns about the operation’s carbon footprint.
Objections from Texas Disposal Systems and Andrew Dobbs of Texas Campaign for the Environment were instrumental in persuading the city’s Zero Waste Advisory Commission to unanimously recommend against extending the contract last month.
Dobbs told Council that the Waste Management site was called “Austin’s Love Canal” because of its terrible pollution. A 1999 report written for the city by Carter & Burgess said the site “poses a substantial environmental risk and potential future liability to the owners and users of the site.” Although they recommended removal and proper disposal of the waste at the site, opponents of the Republic contract say there is no indication that such disposal ever occurred.
Dobbs said that failure to extend the contract would not “plunge the city into darkness.”
According to a memo from the director of Austin Resource Recovery, Bob Gedert, and the general manager of Austin Energy, Larry Weis, Texas Disposal Systems bid on the contract in 2013 but failed to put in the price or a validating signature, making their bid nonresponsive.
The memo said that utility poles constitute about 40 percent of the volume to be disposed of or recycled.
Bob Gregory, CEO of Texas Disposal Systems, which also bid on the contract in 2013, provided Council with a memo explaining that during the four years that TDS had the contract prior to 2013, TDS “recovered 47 percent of the total waste stream. … And through value-added processing of that material for recycling and/or reuse, rendered it no longer waste, but valuable inventory to be sold or reused by TDS at a time of our choosing.”
Gregory said he would be willing to work with the city on a short-term contract and take the waste to his landfill. He pointed out that TDS already has two contracts, called service agreements, with Austin Energy to take scrap wood from its gas plants at Sand Hill and Decker Creek.
Kathleen Garrett, director of Environmental Services at Austin Energy, explained at the Zero Waste Advisory Commission meeting that AE needed an extension of the Republic contract “to continue operations, basically.” After Thursday’s meeting, she expressed concern about what the utility can do with its waste since Council basically told staff not to continue the contract with Republic.
Garrett said AE has only one week’s storage capacity for contaminated soil at its Kramer Lane site. She said she was extremely concerned about the impact on Austin Energy employees if they are unable to get the waste off that site. Although Gregory and his attorney, Michael Whellan, both said that the city does have the authority under a section of the Local Government Code to do a short-term contract with either TDS or another waste hauler, Garrett said the city’s Law Department had told staff it could not do that.
Do you like this story?
There are so many important stories we don't get to write. As a nonprofit journalism source, every contributed dollar helps us provide you more coverage. Do your part by joining our subscribers in supporting our reporters' work.
Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin Energy: As a municipally-owned electric utility, Austin Energy is a rarity in the largely deregulated State of Texas. It's annual budget clocks in at over $1 billion. The utility's annual direct transfer of a Council-determined percentage of its revenues offers the city a notable revenue stream.
Austin Resource Recovery: Formerly Solid Waste Services. The department in charge of handling solid waste disposal, recycling, and--in what is still a pilot program--curb-side composting for the City of Austin.
City of Austin Zero Waste Advisory Commission: An Austin City Council advisory commission. Its members are charged to "[r]eview and analyze the policies and resources relating to solid waste management in the city and advise council on solid waste management policies and resources." Formerly the Solid Waste Advisory Commission.
Texas Campaign for the Environment: A nonprofit environmental advocacy group in Austin, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth fighting pollution.
Texas Disposal Systems (TDS): An Austin-San Antonio landfill, recycling and composting system.