TDH: 7/25/11

Plastic bag ban, Water Treatment Plant 4 come to council

Anybody have some stadium-sized Tupperware?
Anybody have some stadium-sized Tupperware? (WTP4 photo by John Anderson)

Plastic bag ban? Water Treatment Plant No. 4 revolt? The Hustle tried to steal away a little summer downtime last week, but the deluge of announcements since proves City Council (and yours truly) will stay busy all week long.

First up: the plastic bag ban. Council’s floated banning the petroleum-based buggers before, instead opting for a recycling initiative with local retailers, a move environmentalists have argued hasn’t achieved its goals.

It seems Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez and Chris Riley agree, offering an item for council's August 4 meeting that would “phase out” local usage of the bags – a move coming on the heels of Portland, Oregon’s recent ban. Let’s catch up with the item sponsors, via press release:

“Single-use plastic bags are both harmful to the environment and costly to our local economy,” said Mayor Leffingwell. “They create litter in our rivers and streams, they’re harmful to wildlife and because bags are not biodegradable, they are around forever. These bags also place an undue cost on the community when we’re spending taxpayer dollars to deal with them.”

Austinites use about 263 million plastic bags annually, which cost the City an estimated $850,000 per year to manage including collection, litter management, landfill costs and recycling contamination. This figure does not include the immeasurable cost to our environment.

“Ever since we started this effort more than four years ago, we’ve worked together with stakeholders and citizens to try everything we could think of to reduce the number of plastic bags entering our waste stream,” said Council Member Martinez. “Voluntary efforts did show a limited amount of success, but frankly it hasn’t made enough of a positive impact.”

The resolution calls on the City Manager to conduct a stakeholder process and develop an ordinance to bring back to Council this November. Concerned citizens and affected businesses will have a chance to help shape the timeline of a phase-out and determine if any exceptions should be made for certain types of businesses or situations.

“Plastic bags have been phased out in a number of other cities around the country, and these actions have not turned out to be as controversial as you might think,” said Council Member Riley. “Habits are changing and families are adapting as they see the positive change they are making to the community as a whole.”

The release also notes the voluntary program the city initiated with local grocers “did not reach the goal of a 50% reduction in bags sent to the landfill – but did achieve a reduction of about 20%.”

… If that’s not big enough news for you, an item from Bill Spelman, Chris Riley, and Laura Morrison will open the floodgate of controversy over Water Treatment Plant No. 4. With a preamble addressing Austin’s drought and the importance of conservation, Item 110 calls for City Manager Marc Ott “to determine the approximate costs associated with postponing completion of Water Treatment Plant 4 for five years and for ten years, relative to the costs of on-time completion.” Moreover, it also directs Ott “to immediately halt issuance of Notices to Proceed on any construction aspect of Water Treatment Plant 4 until directed otherwise by the City Council.” Ott’s figure “shall be estimated to at least the nearest $5 million, and shall be provided to the City Council and the public by close of business, August 11, 2011.”

Despite Katie Tovo’s lack of involvement with the resolution, it’s impossible to separate the item from the politics surrounding the new-look council. Tovo – who repeatedly declined to say how she would vote on WTP4, instead saying “any decision would have to be considered in light of the financial implications, the economic implications” – tips plant support from 4-3 in favor to 4-3 opposed (in principle, at least).

It’s also impossible not to view any WTP4 pyrotechnics separately from next year’s mayoral election, whenever it may be. The Hustle can see someone like Spelman or Sheryl Cole (who, despite her support of Tovo and acceptance into the Morrison/Spelman ‘cool kid’ club, has repeatedly voted in favor of WTP4) supporting this measure to take WTP4 off the table once and for all – getting a full-accounting of cost, deciding stoppage is too costly, and ‘regretfully proceeding with an eye towards bringing the project in on time, on budget, etc., etc. …’

However, it’s been thought plenty of times before that WTP4 was decided – and given the plant’s tortured history, plus the council's new dynamic, nothing would surprise us at this point.

… Council hits the ground running this week, with a work session going over the council agenda Tuesday, an additional work session addressing the City Manager’s proposed budget Wednesday, then the full meeting Thursday. Welcome back!

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