Landfill Expansion Trashed ... for Now
Opponents of revised contract between Williamson County and Hutto landfill operator Waste Management Industries celebrate county commissioners’ decision to postpone voting on contentious new deal
By Patricia J. Ruland, Fri., Aug. 31, 2007
Opponents of a revised contract between Williamson County and Hutto landfill operator Waste Management Industries celebrated Tuesday when county commissioners postponed voting on the contentious new deal. Their victory could be only temporary, however. Commissioners voted 4-1 to table indefinitely a decision on the controversial contract, an amended version of the county's 2003 agreement with WMI. (County Judge Dan Gattis cast the dissenting vote.) On paper, the contract might appear beneficial to the county. The new deal would direct more revenue to the county from the landfill operations. Still, three commissioners in particular took the lead in arguing for the delay until the county can resolve a related (and no less controversial) proposal on a massive expansion of the landfill. One key question centers on why WMI's name appears on the permit application filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Since the landfill is a public facility, many residents and opponents of the expansion question WMI's motives in adding its name to the application – apparently without the county's knowledge. The appearance of WMI's name on the document also suggests that the county would not seek bids from other landfill companies for the project.
Prior to tabling the contract, the commissioners voted unanimously to take WMI's name off the permit application. But that doesn't completely settle the issue, because the application is still the focus of a contested case hearing at the TCEQ. While Gattis supported the move to delete WMI from the application, he still favored immediate approval of the county's revised contract with the landfill contractor. His argument is that the proposed contract and the proposed permit application are two different beasts and should be addressed separately. Once Tuesday's discussion turned to the contract, however, it was clear that wasn't going to happen. Commissioner Cynthia Long said she could not vote for the contract until the permit issue was settled and suggested that the county "codify" the arrangement. Commissioner Valerie Covey thanked the residents for bringing the debate forward and said she could not vote for the contract until the court "looked at problems with the permit further." Similarly, Commissioner Ron Morrison, addressing proponents of the plan, said, "You need to be in my office and hear the phone ringing." He then agreed the proposed contract should be put on hold.
Those favoring both the contract and the expansion of the landfill blamed a WMI competitor – Bob Gregory, owner of Texas Disposal Systems and a local competitor of WMI – for instigating the whole dustup. It was Gregory, after all, who discovered the signature of a WMI executive on the county's permit application. By most accounts, it appears that WMI slid its name onto the application with absolutely no public notification. As Gregory told the Chronicle, some pages were signed by WMI's Steve Jacobs on Oct. 9, 2003, a day before other pages in the application were signed by former County Judge John Doerfler. Gregory said Doerfler told him he hadn't seen the WMI add-on to the permit and seemed genuinely surprised to learn of it. Not only that, Kurt Johnson, spokesman for Texas Disposal Systems, said Doerfler told him that had it not been for Gregory, the WMI contract and permit would have been a done deal by now.
Gattis, nevertheless, still favored moving ahead on the somewhat separate issue of the contract and asked commissioners to reconsider their stance. "This is a cancer that has affected the community – we've got to move on!" he exclaimed. Another commissioner, Lisa Birkman, peddled the idea of adding some on-the-spot amendments to the contract. She complained the contract was taking up "hours and hours" of time and that rejecting the agreement would not necessarily guarantee the county would put the expansion project through a competitive bidding process.
After the vote, opponents were jubilant. "They [the court] blinked, big," said Gregory, adding, "They listened to the constituents and their concerns." Gregory also heads Texas Justice for All, which is a party to the contested case hearing at the state level.
County Attorney Jana Duty deemed Gregory a "propagandist" for wanting the county to seek competitive bids on the project rather than just handing the job to WMI.
The specter of a landfill as large as King Kong has served to mobilize residents and environmental opponents. As proposed, "Mount Hutto," so named by Mount Hutto Aware Citizens, could rise twice as high as the UT Tower and about 200 feet higher than the Frost Bank Tower, to a height of 700-plus feet on more than 500 acres. Opponents of the expansion also believe WilCo has long played the financial fool, because in the 1990s, commissioners acquired 300 acres through condemnation, in hopes WMI would one day buy the landfill-area property outright. The $50 million sale will probably never materialize, however, as long as WMI keeps its contractual relationship with the county. "It's like they won the lottery," Texas Disposal Systems spokesman Johnson said of WMI. "The county was snookered."
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