Just off Hwy. 71 in Del Valle, the Austin Pecan Park mobile home community peeks out of a wooded hillside above the Colorado River. There are large shade trees, bushes heavy with wild grapes, and a multitude of butterflies and dragonflies that flutter through the greenery that blankets the hill as it slopes down to the river. But as you walk the several hundred feet downhill toward the Colorado, another landscape takes over: hardened, multicolored concrete flows that have choked the trunks of trees and plants, leaving, in some places, only the tips of leaves jutting up through the mess. The concrete hillside was put there by Rainbow Materials, which operates a concrete batch plant next door to the trailer park.
The eerie concrete landscape was discovered last month by members of the Concerned Citizens of Spicewood, a group of Hill Country residents who are fighting Rainbow's plans to build a concrete batch plant next door to their Spicewood homes. When the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission got wind of the problem, it began an investigation of its own. "It's a real mess, and pictures hardly do it justice," said Lee Carrell, president of the CCS. "It's not like a spill or an accident that someone did without knowing. That's just so easy to see if you just go look."
Still, when asked last month about the existence of the concrete forest, Rainbow owner Ramon Carrasquillo told the Austin American-Statesman that "the discharge of concrete is not a common practice of ours. We had built berms, and the concrete was supposed to be discharged inside the berms."
But according to former Rainbow employee Tom Williams, discharging concrete was "more than common practice" at Rainbow -- "it was an everyday deal," said Williams. "We were even told over the radio [by a plant supervisor] to do it." Williams, who worked at the plant for several years before quitting six months ago, said Rainbow workers were told to add water to the leftover concrete so it would thin out and "we'd have more room to keep dumping it."
Williams said he decided to come forward after seeing Carrasquillo's comments on the front page of the Statesman. "I've got nothing against Rainbow. It's just that when I saw that on the front page of the paper I thought, that's just wrong," he said. "I like Austin and the rivers and waterways. I don't want anything to destroy the Colorado." Williams told the Chronicle that four or five trucks would each dump nearly 10 yards of concrete over the side of the hill on a daily basis. "And there are a lot of chemicals in that concrete," he said. "A lot of nasty stuff." Carrasquillo could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, TNRCC spokesman Andy Saenz said the investigation of the Del Valle plant is ongoing. "We are working on two things," he said. "One is a remediation plan and, two, an enforcement penalty. [We're deciding] should there be a fine and what that fine should be." The city's watershed protection department, which has joined the TNRCC's investigation, issued five citations on June 20 based on violations of the city's land development code. "Our definition of development includes the dumping of refuse or waste on the land," said department supervisor Marisol Claudio-Ehalt. "That ties this to the land development code." In addition to the issuing of a "stop work" order, Claudio-Ehalt said her department has found five violations of the code: development without a permit, inadequate erosion control, inadequate tree protection, deposition of fill over 4 feet, and development within a critical water quality zone. "Now we will work with the owner and determine how to bring the site back into compliance," Claudio-Ehalt said.
But regardless of the number of violations found at the Del Valle plant, Rainbow could still get the go-ahead for the Spicewood site. "That is a separate issue," Saenz said. "We will only look at the merits of that particular plant." All Rainbow needs from the TNRCC to build the plant is an air quality permit, Saenz said. "And what happened in Del Valle had nothing to do with air quality," he said. "If they meet the technical letter of the law on that, there is no reason to deny the permit."
Saenz said that while the TNRCC is required to monitor the plant's air emissions, they're not responsible for other inspections -- which is why Rainbow says it never noticed the concrete jungle that was sprouting behind the plant. "They're supposed to take the leftover [concrete] or waste and haul it off to a registered landfill, and they didn't do that," Saenz said. "But we have not received any complaints to date on that facility and that's usually how we get involved."
Still, Rainbow must get through a "contested case hearing" -- which the TNRCC granted the Spicewood neighbors -- before it's allowed to build the new plant. Mike Blizzard, who represents the CCS, said they intend to prove the plant would have an adverse effect on the air quality of the "pristine" Hill Country site.
Not only is the site nestled between two creeks, but many area residents use rainwater collection systems to convert rainwater for home uses. "Here are people who are trying to do things right, to save the environment," Blizzard said. "And this concrete creates a crystalline silica, which has been classified as a carcinogen, and it is so small it penetrates the body's defenses and it embeds itself in the lungs."
Blizzard said the constant release of concrete dust would not only ruin the rainwater collection systems, it would also exacerbate existing health problems, especially respiratory problems such as asthma. CCS President Carrell said the group has been trying to work with Carrasquillo, in part by trying to locate other sites for the plant that aren't so close to people and aren't in environmentally sensitive areas. "But he won't return our calls or go and see the other sites," Carrell said. "I think he's sort of hiding from us right now."
Nonetheless, Carrell said the CCS intends to fight to the end. They've been holding fundraisers to help with their legal expenses, and have set up a Web site (www.spicewoodtexas.org) to get more people involved. "It's going to be an uphill battle, but we intend to go as far as we have to," he said. "Nobody's against concrete. It's just the location. There are places for these kinds of things, and there are places where they don't belong. The Spicewood site is one of them."