Dumping on Del Valle

Residents wary of waste processing site

Some East Austinites express frustration with state Rep. Dawnna Dukes’ effort on landfill issues, but she blames a conserv­a­tive legislature that has hamstrung the TCEQ.
Some East Austinites express frustration with state Rep. Dawnna Dukes’ effort on landfill issues, but she blames a conserv­a­tive legislature that has hamstrung the TCEQ. (Photo By John Anderson)

Residents in East Austin and eastern Travis Co. have historically felt figuratively dumped on by development trends. Now, a group of area residents, the East Travis County Concerned Citizens, is frantically trying to stop one of the many exhausted sand and gravel mines scattered throughout their Del Valle neighborhood from becoming what they feel amounts to a literal dump. The facility in question, owned by JV Environmental (formerly JV Dirt and Loam), was permitted in March by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to resume operations as a composting operation, processing waste materials from sewage sludge to grease trap waste. Residents say the TCEQ was unreceptive to their concerns and denied an appeal request. They question whether the agency can be trusted to regulate the sensitive operation. The ETCCC also complains that their state representative, Rep. Dawnna Dukes, was reluctant to come to their aid as they faced TCEQ's bureaucracy. Dukes cites the opposition's late arrival to the permitting game, not to mention a hamstrung TCEQ systematically debilitated by the state's conservative leadership.

Meanwhile, JV Environmental President Don Legacy assures neighbors that "we've over-engineered protections beyond what TCEQ requires." Located near the intersection of FM 969 and FM 973, JV will receive materials including sewage sludge, animal feces, septic, and grease trap waste. JV will treat the stinky substances using an advanced dewatering process designed to prevent stench and airborne contaminants and combine the materials with more common, compostlike ingredients to yield a reusable dirt product. Legacy says he's participated in several public and private community meetings during the two-year permitting process and that he's been committed to addressing neighbors' concerns, such as the potential pollution of the adjacent Colorado River and area groundwater. "The opportunity for something to escape is minimal," he said, adding that monitoring devices are also included in the facility's environmental safeguards.

Not satisfied, neighbors are pursuing their last options in the appeal process. "A civil complaint to the EPA will be filed; we're researching information now," said Belinda Reyes of the ETCCC. "To bring human waste right into our neighborhood is totally reprehensible and disrespectful, sinister," said Ray Ramirez, executive director of community organization Con Ganas and president of nearby Imperial Valley Neighborhood Association. Ramirez said Imperial Valley, along with area neighborhoods Austin Colony, Forest Bluff, and Garden Grove, became aware of the facility only recently. "If it was in the paper, that's not enough," he said, referring to newspaper classified notices, the only community notification required by the TCEQ beyond the mandated half-mile zone. Residents also expressed disappointment that Dukes was not the advocate they had hoped for. "We desperately needed her support, and we did not receive it," Reyes said. Neighbor Jesse Banda said, "We depend on our elected officials to serve and protect people; somewhere down the line something changed."

Dukes said her staffers attended public meetings from the beginning of the process and that she was under the impression, based on her interactions with two community groups within the required half-mile area, that "the majority of the groups' concerns were addressed" and that "the neighborhoods approved." She says the ETCCC simply "got into the game too late" to have an impact on JV's permit, but said Ramirez's claim – that many neighbors who now oppose the facility weren't properly notified – exemplifies a problem with state statutes that she has tried to rectify since she first took office. "I tried over and over to change the notification zone in my first four sessions as a member of the Environmental Regulations Committee." The larger scope of TCEQ's capacity to do their job, from permitting to holding hearings, she says, has been kneecapped by a "conservative, anti-environmental Legislature. The TCEQ's budget was deliberately cut over the last session, by design." She said the inspection and enforcement division's budget was slashed by 40%, forcing the agency to outsource testing and monitoring contracts that ensure facilities like JV aren't creating pollution.

"The people of Texas don't want to be paying for monitoring," said TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson. "As part of its permit, JV is required to pay for the monitoring of wells on its property," he said. "The TCEQ doesn't specify who performs the monitoring or set any requirements for them, but I'm sure it'll be a licensed company" – though he admitted that the TCEQ doesn't require it. Clawson maintains that last year's budget cuts haven't affected agency functions. And when it came to the permitting of JV's facility, he said, "All rules were followed. … Two notices were placed in the classifieds according to rules," but "I don't know how the public meetings were noticed." The TCEQ "received comments from seven or 10 people" during public meetings, Clawson said, but "no requests for a contested case hearing appealing JV's permit were received." Later, he said, "Two requests for rehearings were denied because [TCEQ] commissioners didn't find cause." Once the facility is running, Clawson said, it will be subject to a period of inspections and "when we get complaints we do send out inspectors."

Robin Schneider of the activist group Texas Campaign for the Environment said, "A lot of communities are looking for a cheap and dirty way to deal with sludge; they're calling it something nice but it's not necessarily safe." She also pointed to new concerns pertaining to grease trap waste, which often contains heavy metals from pesticides and cleaning products, and its ultimate impact as part of a composting product. Schneider said the EPA environmental justice complaint residents plan to file is very valid but a long shot. She cited a similar facility, Texas Organic Recovery, located in Creedmoor, southeast of Austin, which she says has experienced "horrible odor and flooding issues." The TCEQ is rewriting its rules for composting facilities, she said, which will affect everything from this point forward.

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Del Valle, East Travis County Concerned Citizens, JV Environmental, JV Dirt and Loam, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Dawnna Dukes, Don Legacy, Belinda Reyes, Ray Ramirez, Con Ganas, Imperial Valley Neighborhood Association, Jesse Banda, Terry Clawson, Robin Schneider, Texas Campaign for the Environment, Texas Organic Recovery

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