The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Garbage in, Garbage out -- in Court

By Lauri Apple, July 18, 2003, News

Fed up with odors, flyaway debris, birds, and other nuisances, a group of Northeast Travis Co. residents have filed suit against the two landfills in their midst, located off U.S. 290 East and owned by trash multinationals Waste Management Inc. and Browning-Ferris Industries. Represented by the personal-injury law firm Slack & Davis LLP, the residents' suit, filed in state district court earlier this month, claims that previous efforts to negotiate with the landfills have "failed." In addition to seeking class-action status for their suit, the residents seek confirmation by a judge that the landfills are improperly managed, thereby "voluntarily and intentionally (or negatively) interfer[ing] with the use and enjoyment of the Plaintiffs' property."

Both landfills have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading their facilities since residents of Walnut Place, Harris Branch, and other nearby neighborhoods began complaining of horrid smells and other problems in mid-2001. Yet complaints have continued, particularly in light of the landfills' plans to expand their operations. According to Walnut Place resident Joyce Thoresen, the timing of the suit has no particular significance, but that residents have been waiting "a long time" to file it. While Thoresen is a named plaintiff, other landfill opponents -- including Trek English, the tireless president of the anti-landfill Northeast Action Group -- are not cited, due in part to their recent or ongoing involvement in efforts by the county to bring the neighborhoods, the landfill companies, and other stakeholders to the table.

Indeed, these landfills -- and landfills in general -- have been a regular discussion topic at the Commissioners Court for more than a year now, with the county's much-awaited landfill siting ordinance still on the table for approval. On Tuesday, July 22, the court will hold a public hearing on the ordinance, the text of which is available at the county's Web site, In May, the commissioners awarded a contract to engineering consultants URS Corporation to conduct a landfill odor and emission study; Phase I cost $15,000, with subsequent monitoring and other work by URS, if authorized, to cost substantially more. The results of that study won't be available for several more weeks, but Thoresen is already skeptical of its usefulness. "What will it say that the landfills don't already know?" she asks.

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