Landfills Growing Up
Fewer but larger landfills aren't necessarily a bad thing: Less than 20 years ago, many cities and towns disposed of their trash by burning it, directly polluting the air and water. But Lowerre believes vertical expansion is not a safe long-term solution, due to the potential for erosion and leaks. Federal guidelines enacted in the mid-Nineties required new landfills to install liners to prevent groundwater contamination. "But there's no such liners under many of the old piles," he says, "which they could expand over. And because we don't have much experience with these types of land mounds, we're starting to get surprised by the problems."
Yet expansion over unlined landfills is taking place across Texas, says Lowerre. In March, he represented a citizens group in a suit to oppose a 55-year expansion permit awarded by TNRCC to a BFI-owned landfill in southeast Bexar County. A judge vacated the permit, citing inadequate fire protection plans. "The agency's postponed, if not killed, the idea of getting state of the art landfills by allowing them to go up[ward]," Lowerre said.
Paul Gosselink, counsel for BFI, responds that there would be no point in landfills like Sunset Farms applying for vertical expansion if it weren't acceptable. "As long as they're properly designed and engineered, it's a commonly accepted practice to do that," he said. "The EPA concluded it to be environmentally safe, so Texas does too."