Commissioners Court Gets Trashy

Commissioner Davis fights further landfill expansion in eastern Travis County

The Travis Co. Commissioners Court was talking trash again Tuesday, discussing, but declining to vote on, the amendment of its solid waste facility siting ordinance to include landfills. The expectation was that the new siting ordinance amendments will give commissioners a greater say in where new landfills can and cannot go as the county rapidly develops, and in doing so avoid repeats of the current bedlam between Northeast Travis Co. residents and landfills operated by historically problematic Waste Management of Texas and Browning-Ferris Inc. The county has struggled to find ways to regulate the Northeast landfills with little help from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, frequently viewed as an industry pal. Critics claim the landfill amendments, while good for future development, will simply prompt a flood of complicated expansion permit applications, doing nothing to address the current troublesome sites.

Residents have vehemently opposed protracted expansion negotiations between BFI and the county (See "Neighbors Say No to Mt. Trashmore Expansion," July 15), and on Aug. 25, WM filed its own expansion application with the TCEQ, forgoing the county's blessing entirely. Both expansions are opposed because trash will be layered high atop old, grandfathered sites that lack modern pollution controls. While operators clamor for more capacity they say is needed, critics question TCEQ and industry assertions that there is a shortage of landfill space in the Austin area.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Ron Davis has consistently opposed expansions at WM and BFI, calling for their expeditious closure. Given that Northeast Travis County's geology is regarded as prime landfill territory, Davis has been an advocate of siting landfills outside the county, joining a chorus of locals who believe the Austin area, particularly in the east, bears the brunt of the 10-county waste facility burden. He explained that the existing siting ordinance, drafted in 2003, was initiated based on residents' concerns over sludge farms and facilities processing dead animals near their homes, but that constituents asked him to include landfills after years of trouble with WM and BFI. "They have not been trustworthy in the past. What makes us think they will in the future?" Davis said. The amendments would ensure that future residents in the city's Desired Development Zone (central Austin and eastern Travis Co.), won't be plagued by landfills. "It will at least give some siting protection to schools and neighborhoods," Davis said.

Texas Campaign for the Environment director Robin Schneider explained how other landfill operators, rushing to file their own expansions before the amendment took effect, would likely double the number of expansion applications that must be vetted with the limited resources of the state and individuals. "The TCEQ says they rely on citizen input for expansions, but people only have so much time and money to look closely at so many foot-and-a-half-thick expansion applications." She balked at TCEQ claims that the Austin area had only 10 years of household waste capacity. "The state agency is very close to the waste industry, perpetrating the impression that there is a landfill crisis to ease permitting standards," Schneider said. TCEQ's own most recent data showed more than 30 years of capacity, which can be greatly prolonged through recycling, according to Schneider. In other words, there's no hurry to expand existing landfills or find new ones.

Commissioners will take up the proposed solid-waste ordinance amendment again at an unspecified upcoming meeting, said Dan Smith, County Judge Sam Biscoe's executive assistant.

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