Naked City

BFI Fails the Smell Test

For Thursday night's community showdown between Browning-Ferris Industries and neighbors of BFI's Sunset Farms landfill, it seemed appropriate that the air reeked of garbage. Luckily, the stench stayed outside the Travis County Pct. 1 satellite office and disappeared by the end of the meeting. But anger and frustration at BFI are bound to linger for much longer. Neighbors strongly oppose plans to expand and modify the landfill, and BFI is committed to changing their minds.

Earlier this year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality cited Sunset Farms after the landfill spawned hundreds of odor complaints from neighbors in the Harris Branch, Walnut Place, and Chimney Hill neighborhoods in Northeast Travis County However, last month the TCEQ also approved BFI's plans to expand vertically by 10 feet -- extending Sunset Farms' life span by another year, BFI estimates -- and to install a water detention pond and modify the floodplain to comply with county rules while freeing up land to store garbage. According to Sunset Farms engineer Ray Shull, BFI's proposal is not a "one-of-a-kind" project. "TCEQ wouldn't have agreed to it if they felt it would adversely affect water quality," he asserted.

But landfill neighbors such as NorthEast Action Group President Trek English, a leader of the opposition, argue that BFI's proposed expansion area is a wetland that should be protected. (The city agrees it has some wetland features.) Landfill neighbor Applied Materials, which sent one of its environmental engineers to Thursday's meeting, is concerned that BFI's plans will cause flooding on its property. And neighbors worry that BFI will win approval for plans to grow 65 feet taller -- worsening erosion, noise, and odor problems while enabling Sunset Farms to accept trash from a multicounty region for at least a dozen more years. "If it stinks on Christmas, we're all going to come to your house," English told the BFI representatives and county officials in attendance. "That's gentle humor."

While many neighbors simply want BFI to go away, company representatives tried to reassure the audience that BFI wants to work with them and not against them. But after an hour the genial tone disintegrated. "It's shitty out there right now!" exclaimed one woman in frustration. Added another resident, "It's like you're profit-driven to drive us out of our homes."

Attorney Paul Gosselink, counsel for BFI, reminded neighbors of a Sunset Farms pager number that residents can call when they smell garbage on their property, and that BFI has spent several hundred thousand dollars on upgrades. "We're not here to say it doesn't smell tonight," he said. "I'm merely making a suggestion that you try to determine what is the smell." But that could be difficult -- especially considering that in the past year, the TCEQ has also issued odor violations to BFI's immediate neighbor, Waste Management Inc.'s Austin Community Landfill. As landfill neighbor Joyce Best put it, "If the TCEQ can't determine which landfill it is, how do you expect us to?"

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