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Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
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Wednesday, December 9, 2015 by Jo Clifton
Austin Energy waste contract extension in doubt
City Council members Ora Houston and Don Zimmerman voiced their objections at Tuesday’s work session to a 12-month extension of the contract between the city and Republic Services Inc. for hauling industrial waste from Austin Energy to the Waste Management Inc. landfill in Northeast Austin.
Austin Energy needs a hauler for its Class 2 nonhazardous waste, which includes soil contaminated with transformer oil, asbestos and creosote-coated wooden utility poles. Time is a factor because the original contract with Republic Services will expire on Friday. Council postponed the item last month to this week’s agenda.
Houston said the contractor should not be putting any more waste in East Austin. “I don’t just feel strongly about it. The community feels strongly about it,” Houston told the Austin Monitor when asked to explain her objection. “For at least 20 years now,” Houston said, East Austin residents have been trying to get the Republic landfill – as well as the much larger Waste Management landfill – closed.
“The Republic landfill was closed, I think, Nov. 1. 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, which is at Giles Road and U.S. Highway 290 East.
The Zero Waste Advisory Commission unanimously voted against the contract at last month’s meeting. Bob Gregory, co-owner of Texas Disposal Systems, wrote a letter to the commission, as well as to Council, urging rejection of the contract.
Gregory raised concerns about Waste Management’s environmental record and the impact of Council’s approval of an extended contract. “The fact is that the true effect of an affirmative Council vote on this item would be to provide Council sanction to the AE staff’s environmental assessment of the Waste Management Inc. (WMI) Austin Community Landfill (ACL), which effectively provides that facility with a clean bill of health and affirmatively states that the use of that facility poses no environmental risk to the City of Austin,” Gregory wrote.
Texas Disposal Systems bid on the original contract in 2013, but according to a memo from Bob Gedert, director of Austin Resource Recovery, and Larry Weis, general manager of Austin Energy, the bid was deemed nonresponsive when the original contract was awarded.
Gedert told Council that Republic Services has agreed to take the waste to San Antonio at no additional cost to the city. He explained that the Zero Waste Advisory Commission had unanimously voted against the contract because of concerns about the waste going to East Austin, but after that vote, Republic Services offered to take the waste outside of Austin.
Kathleen Garrett, who is the director of Environmental Services at Austin Energy, explained at the Zero Waste Advisory Commission meeting that AE needed an extension of the contract “to continue operations, basically.” She estimated that it would take “nine months, easy” to reopen bidding on the contract and get it back to Council for approval. Gedert estimated it would be up to 12 months until a new contract was executed.
“I can’t not have a contract in place,” said Garrett. “I have no place to store or separate waste, so I have to have a continuation of a contract or some contract in place to dispose of waste.”
Garrett acknowledged the concerns raised by Texas Disposal Systems but said staff had vetted the contracts and landfills and looked at the company’s compliance history and found no violations since 2003.
“It’s not a risk to put the waste in Waste Management’s landfill,” said Garrett. “We could haul it to San Antonio, but because of Council’s concerns on carbon reduction, we felt that would be a better opportunity.”
In a memo to Council, Gedert and Weis noted that Austin Energy’s contract with Waste Management includes creosote-coated utility poles, which can be reused. They suggested perhaps the city could sell them at a surplus auction but were concerned about the legal ramifications associated with public use of the material.
Gregory has suggested that Texas Disposal Systems would be willing to accept the poles at its landfill, where the poles are reused to keep exotic animals on the property. “However, staff cannot direct Republic Services to transport the poles to the Texas Disposal Systems landfill,” noted Gedert and Weis in their memo. “Any negotiation regarding the disposition of the poles between those two parties cannot include staff.”
In his letter to Council, Gregory made several suggestions about what staff could propose as an alternative to extending the contract for a full year. One of the suggestions said, “The City could direct the staff to negotiate with TDS or Republic, under clear Local Government Code purchasing exemptions, for continued provision of these services day to day, with a binding requirement that Republic not utilize the WMI-ACL for disposal of wastes under this contract.”
Under questioning from Zimmerman, it appeared that if Council is not willing to extend the Waste Management contract for a full year, Gedert will propose a shorter extension, perhaps similar to the one proposed by Gregory.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.
Republic Services: Founded in 1996, Republic Services, Inc. is the second largest non-hazardous solid waste management company in the country.
Texas Disposal Systems (TDS): An Austin-San Antonio landfill, recycling and composting system.