Naked City

When Smells Become Odors

When does an icky landfill smell become an official "nuisance odor" worthy of citation and fines? Currently, it's when the smell causes an inspector from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality -- the state agency that regulates landfills -- to get a headache or, worse yet, throw up while stationed at the home of a complaining neighbor. These dramatic and gross requirements may explain why northeast Travis Co. residents have only secured one nuisance-odor violation against the two adjacent landfills off Highway 290, owned by trash titans Waste Management Inc. and Browning-Ferris Industries. In response, Senate Bill 1100, by Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, would allow TCEQ inspectors to issue violation notices for any odor that interferes with people's "reasonable use and enjoyment" of their homes and property.

Judging from the one-sided turnout at the bill's April 24 hearing before the Senate Natural Resources Committee, SB 1100 has a slim chance of making it to the floor. "It's on life support," admits Barrientos aide Graham Keever. The only witnesses testifying on SB 1100 were the odor-oppressed residents -- and as every public official in Travis Co. knows, they never miss an opportunity to complain about landfills. That no WMI or BFI reps bothered to show likely means they doubt the bill will make it out of committee. Keever says the bill is suspected of regulating more than it does; Barrientos has agreed to exempt municipal landfills after several complaints that SB 1100 could force cities to spend millions to combat nuisance odors.

In the past 18 months, the TCEQ has received more than 700 odor complaints about the northeast landfills. And despite efforts by both WMI and BFI to control the smells by installing new equipment, the problems continue: According to Joyce Thoresen of the Northeast Action Group, a neighborhood coalition that opposes expansion of the landfills, a resident complained to the state the night before the Senate hearing. "The TCEQ protocol for handling nuisance odors," she says, "has proved inadequate and inconsistent."

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