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County hopes to block new waste facility in Northeast Austin

Friday, November 22, 2019 by Jack Craver

County leaders are unanimous in their hope that the Austin Community Landfill closes as soon as possible. They are united in their opposition to the landfill operator, Waste Management, adding a transfer station to the existing facility.

It’s not clear whether the county can decide whether WM can add the new facility if the company gets the OK from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. But the county leaders hope their voice can convince the state agency.

“This is a TCEQ decision,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said during a Tuesday meeting of the Commissioners Court. “But Travis County and the city of Austin have considerable influence on that decision.”

After discussing the matter in a closed-door executive session, the commissioners voted unanimously to send a letter expressing opposition to the proposed facility and requesting the state agency hold a public meeting before granting the application.

Jon White, county executive for Natural Resources/Environmental Quality, said he believes a recently adopted county ordinance that prohibits new landfill facilities in the county could block the new facility. He added that part of the site is within the city of Austin and would require a city zoning change to allow the facility to move forward.

Commissioners also directed staff to get TCEQ to “clarify boundaries” between the Waste Management property and a neighboring site, the old Travis County Landfill, which closed in 1982.

Bob Gregory, president of rival landfill operator Texas Disposal Systems, argues that Waste Management is shirking its responsibilities to monitor some of its own waste by convincing TCEQ that parts of the WM site were in fact part of the neighboring county property.

“When Waste Management (WM) last expanded the Austin Community Landfill in Permit Amendment 249D, it successfully sought to exclude the industrial/hazardous waste disposal unit and original WM Phase One area from being monitored for releases of groundwater contaminants and landfill gas migration,” Gregory said in an email to the Austin Monitor.

Asked to respond to the allegations, WM referenced the 2009 decision by TCEQ to allow an expansion of the landfill. In that case, the commission ruled that waste disposed in WM’s Phase One unit and the nearby county landfill “are adjacent to and indistinguishable from one another.” However, the commissioners found that WM’s proposed groundwater monitoring system would “adequately monitor the Phase I Unit area of the Facility and protect human health and the environment.”

People who live near the landfill pleaded with commissioners to block any new facility at the site, saying the stench and associated traffic has become unbearable.

Seyed Ghazi said he bought a home in the nearby Pioneer Hill neighborhood in 2007 after being assured the landfill would close in the next “few years.” Twelve years later, there is still no end in sight and he says he can’t go outside without getting a headache from the odor.

“I cannot take my dog out. I cannot take my children to the playground by the pool,” he said.

Jeffrey Jacoby of Texas Campaign for the Environment similarly urged the Commissioners Court to stand up against the proposed transfer station, which he said would be able to store up to 25 tons of unburied trash a day.

“For all intents and purposes, this is a concrete slab with a shed around it,” he said. “You can imagine a metal shed around 2,500 pounds of garbage that’s been sitting there for a few days. That’s – well, the technical term is ‘gross.’”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said he had seen no evidence that WM had done anything to address the issues its landfill was causing in the surrounding community.

“I would be more encouraged if I had people say to me that, ‘OK, I mean, that landfill has gotten better. I don’t smell it as much. You know, I don’t see the traffic. You know, I’m not as hassled with it as I used to be,’” he said. “But I never see that from this operation, which really makes it very difficult for me to want to do business with (WM).”

He acknowledged that “nobody in the Milky Way” wants a landfill near their home, but contrasted WM’s performance with what he described as chief competitor TDS’s “great operation” in Creedmoor.

In an emailed statement, WM dismissed the odor allegations. “The TCEQ investigated all complaints, which included unannounced visits to the Landfill and detailed reviews of Landfill records, and the TCEQ has issued no violations because the complaints were not substantiated,” the company said.

Eckhardt saw a small silver lining in WM’s application for the transfer station.

“It’s scant comfort, but this is some evidence that Waste Management is preparing to close (the landfill) because they will need a transfer station to move Travis County trash to a neighboring county,” she said.

Indeed, WM said in its own application to TCEQ that the landfill will no longer be in use once the transfer station is operational.

Even though the county has no legal authority to block the TCEQ permit, it could prevent the transfer station from being built by denying WM certain development permits, White said.

Photo by Redwin Law made available through a Creative Commons license.

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