The Austin Chronicle

Landfills Growing Up

By Lauri Apple, May 17, 2002, News

"We're building things for future generations to take care of," says Austin attorney Rick Lowerre. In the last decade, the TNRCC began allowing larger and taller landfills than ever before. "A Place for Waste," the agency's recent overview of landfill trends, shows landfills hold 66% more waste than they did in the mid-Eighties. While population and garbage production have increased, landfills are increasingly centralized, and the actual number has decreased dramatically statewide -- from 884 in 1986 to just 227 in 2000 (44 inactive). "Almost half of the state's 254 counties have no landfills," says the report, "and instead pay someone else to haul their garbage to a neighboring jurisdiction." A TNRCC spokeswoman said the agency has never denied a permit request for a landfill.

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."

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