Wafting in and out like the smell of garbage in the breeze, the issue of whether to allow BFI/Allied Waste Industries Inc. to vertically expand its Sunset Farms Landfill has sporadically soured the air at Travis Co. Commissioners Court for well over five years. Each episode has drawn galvanized, impassioned opposition from nearby Northeast Austin residents, who have long complained about putrid odors, flooding, and trash-strewn streets overwhelmed by garbage trucks. The complaints also apply to fellow refuse handler Waste Management Inc., which operates a similar landfill adjacent to BFI's site.
Last week, commissioners narrowly voted to trash an agreement that would have stamped county approval on BFI's proposed 75-foot height expansion, in exchange for assurances that the dump would close no later than 2015. BFI hoped the agreement would streamline its application to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agency ultimately tasked with approving the expansion. Commissioner Margaret Gomez cast the deciding vote against the expansion deal but flipped her position the next day by voting against county efforts to fight the expansion at the state level, based on stated fears that a new landfill might end up in her south Travis Co. precinct.
"We're going to rebut Gomez's assertion that she's representing her constituents by refusing to fight," said Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, the nonprofit that has led local demands for reforms and expedited closure at both Northeast Austin landfills. Schneider argued that the region is on the verge of a landfill capacity glut, calling BFI's expansion unnecessary and counterproductive to efforts to divert all compostable and recyclable items from landfills – efforts she says will create scores of new "green-collar jobs." Texas Campaign for the Environment presented a letter opposing the expansion signed by more than 70 local black and Hispanic community leaders. The city of Austin in May passed a resolution against the expansion, and state Rep. Mark Strama and Sen. Kirk Watson have also drafted a letter in opposition.
In April, the TCEQ declared BFI's expansion application technically complete, which essentially means the waste giant has provided all the necessary information. The application is now undergoing a more stringent technical review, taking in to account things like site geology, drainage and erosion controls, landfill gas monitoring, and post-closure cost estimates, according to TCEQ media-relations manager Terry Clawson. He said recycling is encouraged but not required for a landfill permit nor is consideration of the actual need for regional landfill space. The TCEQ has received 76 requests for a contested case hearing on BFI's permit. Commissioners will likely initiate consideration early next year, Clawson said.
At a county public hearing in October, Commissioner Ron Davis said it was an "atrocity" that kids at nearby Bluebonnet Elementary School were kept inside at recess due to "odorous conditions." Davis, whose precinct includes the landfill, has staunchly advocated closing the site. Area resident Fabian Martinez said he decided to pull his kids out of Bluebonnet and place them in a private school much farther away. "My daughter would get sick and throw up on the school bus," though she's not prone to car sickness, he said. "Would you want to jog in an area that smells like rotten eggs and dirty diapers?" he asked. Davis said BFI first approached the commission in 2001 concerning an expansion. "BFI has had ample time to do something about space," he said. "Meanwhile, the community has always opposed an expansion."
BFI district manager Brad Dugas said last month that Sunset Farms could fill its permitted capacity by 2011 at present disposal rates and that BFI has had difficulty locating a new landfill site due to "not in my back yard concerns." "I believe we provide a valuable service to the community," Dugas said. "We want to stay in business in the Austin market, and in order to provide uninterrupted service, we need that additional capacity to continue to look for a new landfill in the area." Dugas added that most people don't realize how much BFI's disposal rate of 3,000 tons of waste per day really is. Seventy percent of that waste comes from Travis County, he said, though waste is also accepted from up to 20 other counties. "People say we can't be trusted, but we're honoring the commitment we've made all along – to close by 2015 and to abandon this site if we find a new one before then."
City of Austin Solid Waste Advisory Commission Chair Gerard Acuna said complaints about the landfill have been a hot topic throughout his nine-year tenure on the commission. "It's been one thing after another," he said. "The current location is not a good place for that type of facility, plain and simple." Echoing Davis, Acuna said that if BFI had devoted the time and money it has spent trying to expand Sunset Farms to finding a new site, "they certainly could've started fresh at a new site by now, being the model landfill operators they claim to be." Acuna concluded, "I'm not for kicking BFI out of town but for raising the bar on landfills."
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