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Commission votes to clean up ‘East Austin’s Mount Bonnell’

Wednesday, May 25, 2016 by Vicky Garza

In a move some residents and commissioners referred to as symbolic, the Environmental Commission voted to clean up a site that has been called the Mount Bonnell of East Austin.

The La Loma trail and Red Bluff site, located behind the city-owned facility at 6301 Harold Court, has been used for illegal dumping for over 50 years.

Pete Rivera, president of the Springdale-Airport Neighborhood Association, said that the group brought the dumping to the city’s attention two years ago and some members are disgusted that nothing has been done. He explained that they would like to see the area become a preserve managed by the city, the area neighborhood association and some of the nonprofits they have been working with, such as Ecology Action of Texas, the Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, Easter Seals and Texas Zero Waste Strategies.

“People are willing to help, but we need your help, too,” said Rivera.

Rivera played a video for commission members to show them the site, which has a great view of the downtown Austin skyline and a great deal of trash.

Gilberto Rivera, chair of the Community Development Commission and Pete’s brother, hopes they are not opening up the area to further gentrification by bringing it before the commission.

“You all saw the beautiful vista,” said Gilberto Rivera. “I can see developers frothing at the mouth, saying, ‘What a beautiful site for us for our next multifamily condominium gentrification project.’ That’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to protect this neighborhood, protect this bluff, for our children, our grandchildren and yours.”

Oscar Garza, an environmental compliance specialist in the city’s Watershed Protection Department, said that one difficulty is that the properties are owned by different departments.

“We will do what we can to get all the departments together and identify the folks in the departments, so we can get all those folks to the table and figure out what we need to do,” said Garza.

He said that most of the trash at the site is regular household trash and furniture but that there are a couple of problem areas, such as some asbestos-containing material and a large pile that contains a lot of used oil.

“We’ll go and do a determination of what we can do with some of the piles that we can easily clean up, but the others will take a little bit more work to restore to preconditions,” said Garza.

He assured the commission that the location will be cleaned up and said he has been working with Tony Davee, a project manager at Austin Resource Recovery, to identify some city resources and funding that will allow them to do the testing and start removing some of this material.

About 20 people were at the meeting in support of the cleanup, which Commissioner Andrew Creel referred to as a “huge deal.”

“Twenty people coming out today is like 200 (if this had been a West Austin issue). The residents of this area are very hardworking people; they don’t have a lot of free time on their hands,” said Creel, a native Austinite.

He said he’d like to see this conversation extend beyond Red Bluff to other illegal dumpsites instead of just “bundl(ing) it into this nice pretty package in which we can say we fixed the problem.”

James Casey, a member of the Austin Environmental Justice Team and Undoing Racism Austin, spoke in support of the cleanup effort, calling it “one of the ways that the city can undo racism in Austin.”

“The city has a history of diverting resources toward West Austin, often at the expense of East Austin,” said Rachael Neal, a sociology professor at St. Edward’s University. “I think there’s an incredible opportunity here to contribute to reversing that pattern.”

Commissioner Erin Gooch said she’d like to see another step added: a plan to discourage illegal dumping at this site long term, “to make sure that when this project is complete, that in another six months we don’t have just another illegal dumpsite.”

After over an hour of discussion, the commission voted unanimously to require the city manager to direct the appropriate city department to conduct an environmental site assessment, clean up the site and report back at the next meeting with information such as the results of the study, the status of cleaning and a plan to deter future dumping to preserve the area’s public parkland.

Film still from RED BLUFF: 50 years of dumping on ‘East Austin’s Mount Bonnell’ courtesy of V&M Productions

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